DAKAR, 22 July (IRIN) - International aid groups are rushing to pour food aid and medical teams into Niger where over two million people are living on little more than wild roots and leaves, now that money has finally started flowing in from international donors.
The United Nations, the medical charity Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF) and the Niger government have been warning of dangerous food shortages in the landlocked West African country for several months.
Arab nations, motivated by a sense of Islamic brotherhood, have sent in a few planeloads of food aid. Morocco, Algeria, Libya, Saudi Arabia and United Arab Emirates have all flown in supplies during recent weeks.
France, the former colonial power in Niger, only sent its first planeload of food supplies to the country on Thursday.
But western donors are only now beginning to respond in a big way.
Jan Egeland, the UN Emergency Relief Coordinator, said on Friday that the international community had put more money into the Niger relief effort over the past 10 days than it had during the previous 10 months.
Egeland has repeatedly criticised the international community's slow response to the emerging famine in Niger, which is the second poorest country in the world, according to the UN Human Development Index.
The government of Niger says up to 3.6 million people will suffer food shortages this year after their fields of grain and grazing lands were devastated by drought and a massive invasion of locusts in 2004.
Egeland calls for emergency reserve fund
Speaking to reporters in Geneva, Egeland called for an emergency reserve fund which the United Nations could use to jump start a response to developing crises, while it seeks money from donors.
To date, donors have given US $10 million towards the United Nations' overall appeal for Niger of US $30.7 million, Egeland said.
The appeal figure, which was increased by US $12 million last week, would probably be raised again very soon, he added.
UN officials and aid workers expressed relief that the main international donors, including the United States, the European Union, Britain and Germany, were finally starting to give aid to Niger.
But they warned that for many people in the country's remote and sand swept villages, it was already too late.
"People didn't listen," Natasha Kofoworola Quist of Oxfam-Great Britain told IRIN from Niger's capital, Niamey, on Thursday.
"Thank goodness that's changing, but it's clear children are still going to die."
Save the Children UK, Oxfam-GB, the Irish charity Concern Worldwide and a host of other international aid groups announced this week that they were sending special emergency teams into the landlocked West African country.
Media attention sparks donor interest
The UN World Food Programme (WFP) has so far received US $5 million toward its overall appeal for US $16 million, Gian Carlo Cirri, the WFP representative in Niger, told IRIN on Friday. But the bulk of that has come in the last several weeks.
"Media attention has triggered donors' interest," he said. "The funding situation is getting better but we do not yet have what we need."
Aid workers in Niger said rising humanitarian concern, particularly over soaring levels of child malnutrition, had finally managed to make the crisis register on the world's conscience.
"This year was sufficiently bad in Niger to raise it over the threshold and it became visible," Nigel Tricks, Niger country director for Concern Worldwide said.
"Niger is a forgotten country," he added. "For years it has existed under very difficult conditions. The international community has failed the vulnerable people of Niger for decades."
The failure of the 2004 harvest was particularly crushing for Niger and the country now faces a food deficit of 223,000 tonnes - its biggest shortage for 20 years.
The United Nations estimates that 2.5 million of Niger's 12 million people live on less than one meal per day and survive on wild roots and leaves.
According to the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), up to 150,000 children under five in Niger suffer acute malnutrition.
The handful of therapeutic feeding centres established by MSF and other aid agencies record infant deaths on a daily basis.
New harvest due in late September
Aid experts say it is crucial to get food aid into Niger over the next month to keep people alive until the new harvest begins in late September.
The current rainy season began well in late May and crops planted since then are growing well, but most rural granaries are empty, food prices in the markets have more than doubled and this year's grain crop will not be ready to harvest for another 10 weeks.
Until then, many villagers in Niger will be forced to survive on whatever they can scavenge unless food aid reaches them soon.
Nomadic herdsmen, who have seen their cattle die of thirst and starvation, are at even greater risk than crop growing farmers. Humanitarian workers reckon it will take them at least two years to rebuild their herds.
This week in Niamey aid workers, government officials and UN humanitarian representatives met to fine-tune plans to distribute free food in the hardest hit regions.
Save the Children UK, which did not previously have an office in Niger, dispatched nutritionists and logisticians to the southern towns of Maradi and Zinder in early July to run feeding programmes for malnourished children, according to an emergency advisor with the aid group.
She said it had been very difficult to get international donors to dip into their pockets for Niger, a country which has not hit the headlines for drought and famine for many years.
"Niger is sexy now. Children are dying"
"When Save the Children says, 'We need money for Niger,' people say, 'Why?'" she asked. "The donors don't want to give to something that's not sexy. Niger is sexy now. Children are dying."
Quist of Oxfam-GB said it was ironic that Niger had been forgotten while the world media had been focused on the recent G8 summit in Scotland, where the world's richest countries said that easing poverty in Africa would be adopted as a top priority.
"They say they want to make poverty history and put Africa at the top of their agenda," Quist said. "Meanwhile people are dying."
"It is too late for some people in Niger. It's also too late for so many animals and that is people's livelihoods. But there are still some people we can save," she added.
Oxfam-GB is setting up a US $2 million programme to provide food to at least 130,000 people. It also plans to assist nomadic herders to replenish lost livestock.
Concern Worldwide's Tricks, who has been based in Niger for one year, said if the G8 leaders were serious about helping Africa, they should help to prevent crises like the one in Niger.
"Let's get away from thinking about Niger in 2005," he said. "What's happening now is symptomatic of a wider problem of neglecting grave problems in sub-Saharan Africa."
Concern Worldwide has sent in about 12 international staff to run feeding programmes in Niger's Tahoua region.
The Niger government has been selling subsidised food to people in the worst affected areas for several months. It agreed last week to conduct free food distributions in the hardest hit regions.
Bakary Seidou, the head of the government's national crisis unit, told IRIN on Friday he was meeting with international aid workers to plan how to coordinate the distribution of free food to 1.6 million people.
While appealing for international aid to help feed the destitute, Niger's own people have been dipping into their pockets to help out their compatriots.
Although the average income per capita in Niger is only $190 per year, an appeal launched by the prime minister in May has so far raised 832 million CFA francs (about US $1.5 million) to help feed the hungry, according to the national crisis unit.
[This Item is Delivered to the "Africa-English" Service of the UN's IRIN humanitarian information unit, but may not necessarily reflect the views of the United Nations. For further information, free subscriptions, or to change your keywords, contact e-mail: Irin@ocha.unon.org or Web: http://www.irinnews.org . If you re-print, copy, archive or re-post this item, please retain this credit and disclaimer. Reposting by commercial sites requires written IRIN permission.]
Copyright (c) UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs 2005