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Page last updated at 10:36 GMT, Monday, 21 June 2010 11:36 UK
Niger's silent crisis

An emaciated boy sits on scales in a health centre in Niger
Save the Children says 400,000 children are at risk of dying from starvation

By the Today programme's Mike Thomson
in Niamey

Britain's aid agencies are launching an appeal to help the people of Niger where half the country's population is going hungry following droughts which have led to crop failures and food shortages.

A listless little boy with stick thin arms and legs is weighed at an emergency treatment clinic for under fives near Maradi in Southern Niger.

Abiou, who is just 13 months old, weighs less than four-and-a-half kilos. His half-closed eyes stare out from sunken sockets set in a head that now looks too big for him.

Doctor Mourou Arouna Djimba says he is now being overwhelmed by youngsters like Abiou. "There's a massive need here," he told me.

"We've so little room that sometimes we need to put two or even three children in one bed. We've got 30 in this intensive ward, and this morning another five more severely malnourished children arrived."

In the face of the crisis, the charities Save the Children (STC) and Oxfam are each launching multi-million pound appeals for drought-ravaged Niger.

A family in a drought-hit village near Tanout in southern Niger
A family in a drought-hit village near Tanout in southern Niger

STC says 400,000 of the country's children are at risk of dying of starvation. This follows the failure of rains last year which led to widespread crop failure, a situation greatly aggravated by soaring food prices which have left many people unable to afford to buy even staple grains like millet.

With the next harvests not due until September many people will have little or nothing to eat until then. In all, half of this landlocked country's 15 million people are now in need of food aid.

A couple of hours drive east of Maradi, Niger's third-largest city, around a thousand people, many looking desperate, form long lines outside an emergency feeding centre.

The noise is almost deafening. While they wait under the sweltering sun tempers begin to flare. Some begin pushing at the door and shouting to be let in.

The magnitude of this crisis has not been seen before
The UN's Khardiata Lo Ndiaye

It's all too much for a middle-aged woman in the crowd who, at one point, struggles to remain on her feet.

When the pushing subsides she tells me how difficult it now is to feed herself and her family. "Last year my crops failed five times," she explains. "Each time they grew a little… but there was no rain… so they died. I have no food whatsoever. All I can do is look for leaves and herbs to eat."

When I point out that the leaves she is holding in her hand are unlikely to have much food value in them, she shrugs and replies "That's right. They have no goodness in them but at least they fill our stomachs."

Droughts are nothing new in Niger but this one is exceptionally bad. Most insist it is worse than the one five years ago that caused widespread suffering.

Women and children queue at a feeding centre near Niger's third-largest city, Maradi
Women and children queue at a feeding centre near the city of Maradi

In the isolated village of Makanga, around two hours walk from the town of Tanout, the noise of donkeys, goats and chickens fill the air. But with many here now being forced to sell their animals to get money to buy food, such sounds might soon disappear along with the villagers themselves.

A village elder, Musa Haj Haroon, stares at the ground as he tells me: "The only asset I've got is my livestock. Every now and then I take two or three goats and go and sell them in the market. This is the only way I can get money to buy food.

"If my livestock runs out we will have to leave this village, there is no other solution. And if the rains are bad again this year everyone will go… and this will become a deserted village."

We're facing real starvation. It is happening already.
Save the Children's Ibrahim Fall

Many have left their homes already in search of food. Hani is a fifty year-old mother of eight who has seen five of her children die in recent years. Last month, after her crops failed, she and her family left their village and made their way by foot to the capital, Niamey.

Although it is not the first time that they have been forced to do this following earlier droughts, it was a journey they are unlikely to forget. "We walked for a long way, a very long way. I'm not sure quite how far it was. I have no way of knowing," she told me.

"At one point I thought we were all going to die on the road. But my children were so hungry. I had no alternative. If we had stayed there I am sure we would all have died."

A severely malnourished child in a clinic in southern Niger
Niger's clinics are being overwhelmed by malnourished children

But, in times like these, the capital of the world's least developed country has little to offer those who flee here - sometimes after travelling hundreds of miles - and beggars swell the city's streets.

STC's country director, Ibrahim Fall, describes the current situation in Niger as a "silent" crisis, given how little attention it has been given by much of the world's media.

"We're facing real starvation. It is happening already. Children are starving. Money is not coming at the speed and the volume that we need which is why we want to make this appeal to raise the level of this emergency from being silent to something much louder."

Such frustration is shared by Oxfam's country director in Niger, Mbacke Niang: "We've been alerting everybody since a couple of months," he says. "But it seems like our warning has not been heard or acted upon. And that's what is really worrying for us."

So far the United Nations has only received just over half the money it appealed for to deal with the crisis. And the organisation's head of coordination in Niger, Khardiata Lo Ndiaye, says this shortfall grows more serious by the day, adding "the magnitude of this crisis has not been seen before.

"If we respond now we can handle the situation but each day counts. Money is needed now to save lives."

And you can also see a gallery of Mike's photos from Niger.

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