Page last updated at 06:58 GMT, Sunday, 22 August 2010 07:58 UK

Struggling to afford to eat in Niger

By Afua Hirsch
Niger

Droughts, flooding and rising food prices have left millions of people in Niger facing food shortages and this year's harvest is still months away.

A child being given food by its mother
The young are at the greatest risk from the food crisis

A local volunteer is hard at work in the village of Tidirra in southern Niger.

Sweating profusely in the close heat of a bungalow built out of sandy mud bricks, Adamo Gabeye is mixing a pale golden powder with carefully measured portions of oil fortified with vitamins.

In a process that resembles folding the ingredients for a cake, Gabeye rubs the oil into the dry ingredients in a giant plastic bowl. A blend of corn, soya bean and sugar.

Gabeye, is carefully watched by 14 women, who sit in an orderly row on a bench running along one side of the room.

The small children in each of the women's arms grasp despondently at their breasts. The mothers are underweight and cannot produce enough milk, leaving their babies at risk of severe malnutrition.

On the wall of this clinic - built last year by the villagers, with the support of an international charity, specifically to treat child malnutrition - is a single poster bearing a photo of a chubby family of three.

More than 80% of Niger's population - that is around 12 million people - are at risk of food insecurity

The dimpled faces in the photo are a world away from the women waiting for their rations of food.

One of the world's poorest countries at the best of times, Niger is facing its most severe food crisis in a decade.

Exceptionally heavy rainfall in many parts of the country last year washed away staple crops of millet, sorghum and corn, producing a catastrophic harvest that failed to sustain people throughout much of this year.

Aid shortfall

The figures are alarming.

More than 80% of Niger's population - around 12 million people - are at risk of food insecurity. Acute malnutrition is already above the emergency threshold for famine.

People sitting next to food aid
Aid agencies are finding it difficult to feed everyone

And in remote pastoral and nomadic communities in northern Niger, where the landscape edges ever closer to the Sahara desert, reports are now coming in of tens of thousands of livestock killed following the first heavy rains of the year.

The abrupt change in the weather and their diet put too much strain on animals already weakened by hunger.

The bloated carcases of cows which succumbed to the rain are visible all along the road to Tillaberi, one of the worst affected regions in Niger.

Free UN food distributions are now in their second round here, but officials say a funding gap of more than £70m ($100m) means that the quantities are too small to meet the need.

"It's not enough," says Talata Sourghakoy, an old woman from the nearby village of Sakoria.

She has been waiting all day for her four sacks of corn. "There are 15 people in my family, I need more. One bag will only last us two weeks."

"Since the last supply of food ran out, I have been feeding my family half portions. We are hungry."

Like many villagers in the area, Talata has a field but she says last year it did not produce anything.

"I pray to God that there will be food from the harvest this year. If there isn't, we will need more food distributions, or we will die," she tells me.

Food price hikes

Niger's government is insisting that international aid organisations buy food from abroad, to avoid driving up prices on the local markets.

No one in Niger disputes the menace of high food prices. The cost of staple cereals has rocketed in recent years.

According to the government, powerful traders have monopolised imports and forced prices up.

Almost half of malnourished children under two will not survive

Others cite the global hike in food prices since 2006, blamed largely on record levels of financial speculation on agricultural commodities in the world's financial centres.

The argument is that the growth in the trading in the future prices of food products, on international markets, has permanently squeezed the world's poorest out of the food market.

It is a practice described by the United Nation's Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food, Jean Ziegler, as "silent mass murder".

There is not literally a shortage of food in Niger. People simply cannot afford to eat.

The result is a bizarre reality where severe levels of food insecurity co-exist alongside plentiful supplies of grain in nearby market stalls. And there are months to go before the next harvest offers any hope of respite.

But as the wait continues - first for more emergency aid and then for a more successful harvest this autumn - it is the smallest and youngest in Niger who bear the greatest burden.

Almost half of malnourished children under two will not survive, a fact of which the volunteer Adamo Gabeye is acutely aware.

As he continues his rhythmic mixing of corn, soya bean, oil and sugar Adamo knows that for the babies watching him along the edge of the room, the calories in his bowl could mean the difference between life and death.

How to listen to: From our own Correspondent

Radio 4: Saturdays, 1130. Second weekly edition on Thursdays, 1100 (some weeks only)

World Service: See programme schedules

Download the podcast

Listen on iPlayer

Story by story at the programme website



SEE ALSO
Niger River floods destroy homes
10 Aug 10 |  Africa
In pictures: Niger's food crisis
27 Apr 10 |  Africa
Country profile: Niger
07 Apr 11 |  Country profiles

RELATED BBC LINKS

RELATED INTERNET LINKS
The BBC is not responsible for the content of external internet sites


FEATURES, VIEWS, ANALYSIS
Has China's housing bubble burst?
How the world's oldest clove tree defied an empire
Why Royal Ballet principal Sergei Polunin quit

BBC navigation

BBC © 2014 The BBC is not responsible for the content of external sites. Read more.

This page is best viewed in an up-to-date web browser with style sheets (CSS) enabled. While you will be able to view the content of this page in your current browser, you will not be able to get the full visual experience. Please consider upgrading your browser software or enabling style sheets (CSS) if you are able to do so.

Americas Africa Europe Middle East South Asia Asia Pacific