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Page last updated at 10:41 GMT, Monday, 30 August 2010 11:41 UK
Niger teeters on a knife edge

By Mike Thomson
Today programme, Niamey

A malnurished boy in a health clinic in Niger

The floods that have caused havoc across much of Niger could not have come at a worse time.

When I last reported from the country in June, the world's poorest nation was in the grip of a long running drought that continues to plague large swathes of the country.

Boy stands beside his family home, destroyed by recent flooding

With half of Niger's fifteen million people needing food aid, many here prayed for rain. Now it's come but not in the way they wanted.

Floods have swept away desperately needed crops, destroying homes and some roads. Getting aid to the many millions who need it will now be harder than ever.

The Country's Prime Minister, Mahamadou Danda, is appealing to the world to help.

Broken homes

"The debris in front of us used to be my home," says Carraijo Saidou as he shows me a pile of rubble surrounded by water on the southern fringes of the capital, Niamey.

His family and most of his neighbours have taken shelter in the classrooms of a school nearby. But Carraijo says he has to stay by the wreckage of all he once owned to protect a few sheets of tin roofing and some timber.

Mike interviews victims of the flooding
Much of the world remains unaware of what is happening in Niger.

"If I wasn't here people would steal these, they are the only items of value I have left," he says.

Just down the road more than forty families cram into the emergency shelter where Carraijo's wife has also found refuge.

It is just one of many dotted around the capital where five thousand people have lost their homes in the floods.

A mother, sitting quietly with her eight children, tells me that these are the worst floods she has ever seen. But at least here she now has shelter, food and water for her family, things many here do not have.

The sight of several armed soldiers and police guarding the main gate and patrolling the grounds, shows just how precious such commodities now are.

Forgotten crisis

Much of the world remains unaware of what is happening in Niger. Deep in the heart of Francophone West Africa, it is rarely in the news. Even many intrepid travellers would struggle to place it on a map.

Map of West Africa
Land-locked Niger lies deep in the heart of West Africa

When I last returned through passport control at Heathrow the officer asked where I'd been. "Niger" I replied, "where?" she responded.

So it is perhaps not surprising that its terrible drought and current floods have gone largely unnoticed.

This is at least partly the fault of Niger's previous government, which continued to deny there was a problem until it was ousted in a coup last February.

Thankfully, the new military-led regime, which promises democratic elections in January, now acknowledges that the situation is very serious and is appealing for international help.

The failure of last year's harvests has left most of the nation's population with little to live on. Not that Niger's people have ever been strangers to hunger.

The country always has what they call a "hungry season" - the period between when grain stores run dry from the last harvest to the time new crops are cut in October - usually a period of three to four months.

But with little or no harvest last year the current hungry season has stretched to more than twice that time.

People queing for food handout
Thousands of people are reliant on food handouts for survival

At an emergency feeding centre near the town of Maradi in South Eastern Niger, I witnessed a crowd of nine thousand people massed in the hope of getting emergency rations of grain and oil from aid agencies.

Some of those waiting patiently under the scorching sun had been surviving on leaves and usually inedible and often toxic berries, which first need to be soaked for a week. But I was told that even these are now becoming scarce.

Everyone I spoke to at the centre told me how the situation facing their communities has become steadily getting worse over the past few months.

Yes, this year's rains have finally come. But in some areas they've arrived in torrential downpours which have swept crops away rather than nourished them. In others they have been erratic and un-sustained.

In many areas green landscapes have replaced brown, but October's harvest continues to teeter on a knife edge.

The UN has described Niger's food crisis as the worst in the country's history. The organisation launched an emergency appeal for funds in June this year to help the nation's stricken people.

To date just 65% of the money it called for has come in.

Crops growing back in Niger
Niger's immediate future rests on a successful harvest

This shortfall means that the UN's World Food Programme is now having to limit help to the most vulnerable, which means families with children under five.

The government and other agencies are asked to try and feed the rest. But they too are struggling to get the funds in a world in the midst of recession, fighting to respond to a string of recent natural disasters.

"The crisis in Sahel is a slow burning crisis, that doesn't make good television," Oxfam policy adviser Martin Hapberg told me.

"Because it continues and goes on and is getting slowly worse and worse it just doesn't have the impact of a short term large scale disaster like Pakistan or Haiti. That affects funding and resources."

Glimmer of hope

Two hours drive from the town of Maradi is a health clinic for severely malnourished children.

When I was last here in June the intensive care ward was full of babies reduced to skin and bone, many with bloated stomachs and heads which looked too big for their frail bodies.

Now they are struggling to find space. Two, sometimes three babies share each bed.

"The situation is now much worse than when you were last here," says Dr Morou who runs the clinic, "just last week we had 101 babies come in".

His comments echo those of the charity Save the Children which reports that the number of severely malnourished children admitted to clinics it funds have quadrupled since January.

But there are some glimmers of hope.

Manuel da Silva, the UN World Food Programme's Emergency Coordinator for this region of Africa, says recent success in distributing large amounts of aid is starting to make a difference.

Malnutrition rates, he insists, have come down in some areas.

Mr da Silva also points to the green crops in the fields. If the rains keep falling regularly, he says, the coming harvest should be good and the country's terrible food shortages could soon be over, for now at least.

But, he warns, if the rains fail, the nation's problems may have only just begun.




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Country profile: Niger
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