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Bleak images of hunger fill a trip into Niger

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"Everyone is hungry. There is nothing to eat," says Raha Souley, who was planting beans after some rain finally fell. Photo: Caroline Gluck/Oxfam
"Everyone is hungry. There is nothing to eat," says Raha Souley, who was planting beans after some rain finally fell. Photo: Caroline Gluck/Oxfam

Caroline Gluck is a humanitarian press officer for Oxfam. She is reporting from Niger.

I’ve been left with some haunting images over the last few days as I’ve travelled in Niger to document the country’s worsening food crisis.

A mother who brought in her emaciated one year old son to a malnutrition clinic, weighing half the normal average weight for a child of his age.  She was so under-nourished herself that she had no breast milk to feed him.

Families who supplement cassava and millet flour with wild leaves and berries to fill their stomachs.  Proud livestock herders for whom their animals are their sole source of income – literally, their bank accounts–forced to sell them at bargain basement prices.  And a drive through an area I have dubbed the animal graveyard – a journey of more than four miles where I counted more than 70 dead animals half-buried in the bleached desert sand. Some lay under the shade of a tree, their bared teeth grinning grimly from their sunken skulls.

Niger, like several other countries in the Sahel region of West Africa, including Chad, Mali, and Mauritania, is in the grip of a worsening food crisis.   Erratic rains last year resulted in a 30 percent drop in the harvest. In Niger, more than seven million people, nearly half of the population are facing food insecurity. 

Children under the age of five are the most vulnerable, with hundreds of thousands now classified as severely malnourished.  But the impact of the crisis is being felt widely across the population, especially among semi-nomadic herders who rely totally on their animals to feed their families. They are forced to travel further afield, sometimes crossing country borders, in search of food and pasture.

The cruel irony is that food is available in the markets. But prices have rocketed as livestock prices have tumbled.  Prices for goods like millet have risen by 15 percent to more than 40 percent in some areas.  A cow that once could be sold for 50,000 CFA , or about $96, may fetch in some places as little as 1,500 CFA , or about $2.53.

At prices like that, the sale of ten cows is barely enough to buy a 100-kilo sack of millet that could last a family one month.  But animals have become so frail and weak that often the owner has no choice.  Soon, they will starve to death and earn him no money at all.

We’re in the middle of the “hunger gap” season, the difficult months, as families wait for the next harvest in September and October.  Things will get more difficult day by day.  If families are at break-point now, selling off animals and possessions and leaving their homes for urban centers, the coming weeks look grim indeed.

Oxfam and its local partners in Niger are sounding the alarm.  We’re working with some of the most vulnerable herders and communities by trying to support their livelihoods, providing free and subsidized animal feed, buying weak and thin animals at above-market pre-crisis prices, helping to inject cash into the local economy, and slaughtering and distributing meat from the purchased animals to some of the poorest and most vulnerable households.

It’s an important lifeline. But it’s not enough. The needs are enormous. The situation in Niger is becoming critical. Without urgent funding to support aid agencies responding to the food crisis, both in Niger and across many other countries in West Africa, the future looks stark.

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