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Last Updated: Wednesday, 13 July, 2005, 07:36 GMT 08:36 UK
Bringing relief to Niger's hungry
By Idy Barou
Tahoua, central Niger

Dead animals, such as cows, donkeys, goats and sheep litter the road side of the Tahoua region in central Niger.

Malnourished child
This is the second worst food crisis in Niger's history
Dozens of villages have been abandoned as their hungry former residents go to towns or neighbouring countries, such as Benin or Nigeria in search of food.

"The situation is terrible," said Abdoulye Adamou, who has come to the city of Tahoua.

"We have no food and our cattle are dying in front of our eyes because of a shortage of water and food."

He said that the government food supplied at reduced cost was not only insufficient, but too expensive for a poor farmer living on less than $1 per day.

Poor rains and locust invasions last year devastated the farms leaving behind only desolate, charcoal grey hot sand.

Skin and bones

The government says that at least 3.5m people are suffering from food shortages and 150,000 children are severely malnourished in the regions of Tahoua, Maradi and Zinder.

Experts say this is Niger's worst food crisis since 1984-5.

Tents have become makeshift hospitals
Some children have already died from hunger, says aid agency Medecins Sans Frontieres, which has set up camps where they offer free food and drugs to the needy.

The MSF camp built in Tahoua is the size of two football pitches.

Sky-blue and white tents have been turned into makeshift hospitals, equipped with latrines, mosquito nets, beds and drugs.

Children who have wasted away to little more than skin and bones lie on the floor, while other children are forced to drink the medicated porridge and milk offered by their mothers under the gaze of MSF minders.

On the other side of the city, a team of dedicated nutritionists, nurses and paediatricians is struggling to save the lives of the 200 malnourished children in the Wadata maternity camp.


The children are fed every two hours and are looked after by a nurse and a skilled doctor.

Many of those who live in this rural part of one of the world's poorest countries have never been to school, especially the women and so the aid workers are teaching mothers about basic hygiene.

Mounaratou has made a quick recovery
Ibrahima Ambouka, 3, is so weak that he cannot drink milk on his own.

His mother says he is now looking stronger after being given milk with vitamins and drugs.

Mounaratou, 2, travelled 20km to come to the camp a few days ago.

Her ribs can be clearly seen through her skin and her hair has started to fall out - signs of severe malnutrition.

Her mother says she vomits most of the milk and medicated water she is given.

But she, too, is showing a huge improvement just a day after arriving at the camp in a desperate state.

Her three brothers are at home. Mounaratou was worst hit by the food shortages because she was still breast-feeding and her mother ran out of milk.

Crisis downplayed

Aichatou, 52, clearly acknowledges that the food shortage caused "hell to my child".

"When the mother does not eat well, how can she produce milk for her baby?" she asks.

The government has rejected calls to distribute free food to the hungry and has downplayed the extent of the food crisis.

A journalist with the state-owned Sahel newspaper was even suspended from her job for reporting on the situation in Zinder.

Government critics have condemned its lack of action, saying that the crisis was widely predicted since last year, giving the authorities ample time to prepare.

Tahoua regional health commissioner Seydou Hikoy, is looking beyond this year's food shortages.

"The government needs more than one-off food assistance for the malnourished," he says.

"Food crises have become a recurrent phenomenon in arid areas like Tahoua and we need a long-term programme of poverty and famine relief."

He urges the government and donors to expand irrigated farming to help Niger's population "bridge the gap" between rainy seasons and cope with a year of poor rains, which at the moment can prove fatal.

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