According to a recent field study conducted in communities in western and eastern Niger, between 70 and 90 per cent of people estimate their food stocks will run out before the next harvest, creating an imminent ‘hunger gap.’
The study was conducted by the Assessment Capacities Project (ACAPS) and the Emergency Capacity Building Project (a coalition including CARE, Catholic Relief Services, Mercy Corps, Oxfam, Plan International, Save the Children and World Vision), with input from the World Food Programme (WFP) and the Government of Niger.
While in a typical year the hungry season, when people usually start cutting back on meals, does not habitually start until May or June, the surveyed communities in Diffa and Tillabéri said that this year it has started even now, and that the situation is already critical and will get worse. Key findings of the assessment include:
• 100 per cent of families indicated that they have already reduced portions and number of meals eaten each day.
• Between 70 and 90 per cent of people estimate their food stocks will run out before the next harvest.
• Farmers and pastoralists said last year's harvest was twice as bad as 2009, when a catastrophic drought and high food prices led to a countrywide humanitarian disaster.
• One-quarter of communities said children are dropping out of school because families left in search of work, the school canteens closed, or the children must work.
• People are forced to sell their animals to buy food, but this is flooding the market and causing livestock prices to plummet.
• 97 per cent of the communities indicated serious problems as a result of decreased fodder production for their animals.
• Approximately 80 per cent do not have enough seed stocked to plant for the next season, putting people at risk of hunger for next year as well.
• Nearly one-third of the population is still in debt from the last widespread crop failure in 2009.
Instability in neighbouring countries is making things worse, communities said. Remittances have plummeted since people cannot move freely for work, a typical coping strategy, and refugees from conflict in Mali have crossed into Niger, putting additional strain on families already facing food shortages.
Some 13 million people are at risk from a food crisis in the Sahel region of West and Central Africa, including one million children at risk of severe malnutrition. Erratic rains and an attack of pests and locusts destroyed entire harvests in 2011, leaving families with nothing to eat through this year's hungry season. High food and fodder prices are leaving people with few options. In Niger alone, more than six million people are at risk of hunger; nearly two million of those are in critical need of food and assistance now.
Based on the results of the assessment, the seven agencies recommend the following:
• Donors must provide funding now to implement immediate support for families already in desperate need and to prevent more people from tipping over the edge into crisis. We know from experience that waiting will lead to needless deaths, loss of livelihoods, and a costlier response.
• We must act quickly to scale up interventions to address food security and malnutrition, particularly for the most vulnerable: children under the age of two, pregnant and breastfeeding women, and the elderly. The specific needs of pastoralists must also be addressed.
• This is a chronic emergency with long-term causes. Any response must work with local governments to integrate risk reduction measures to help families be more resilient to food shortages and drought and prevent them from falling into crisis.