Niger: a chronology of starvation

Niger is suffering the second-worst food crisis in its history, with up to a quarter of the population of 12 million people in need of food aid. The current crisis was predicted after poor harvests last year, so how could the situation become so serious? This is the course of events:
May - October 2004

UN Agencies and Programmes (in particular WFP, the Food and Agriculture Organization, UN Development Programme, and UNICEF) follow the situation in Niger closely, supporting the Government's efforts to mitigate both the locust invasion and food insecurity.

September 2004

Although September is normally the height of the rainy season, the rainfall comes to an early stop.

WFP updates its contingency plan, integrating the locust invasion and the food crisis.

August - October 2004

Many of the crops which survived the poor rains are then eaten by locusts. Locust swarms are sweeping across West Africa and Niger is one of the worst-hit countries.

October 2004

A joint food and crop supply assessment mission finds that the food security situation is of particular concern in the agro-pastoral strip.

It reports evidence of the key characteristics of a food crisis: (i) Cereal prices increase rapidly immediately following the harvest; (ii) Local food commodities are scarce; (iii) People are eating seeds; (iv) The price of small livestock drops as people sell assets to buy food; (v) Men leave their villages in droves much earlier than normal in search of work; (vi) Herders take their cattle in search of pasture earlier than normal, causing conflict between them and farmers.

The mission is conducted by the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), World Food Programme (WFP), Famine Early Warning System (FEWS-NET) and Comité Permanent Inter Etats de Lutte Contre la Sécheresse au Sahel (CILSS).

November 2004

Official figures estimate that cereal production this crop year is 15 percent less than the average over the last 5 years in the affected regions. The country normally requires almost 3 million metric tons of cereal; this year it faces a deficit of 223,448 metric tons.

With scarce pasture and water, livestock conditions are deteriorating and tension is rising as farmers and herdsmen struggle to survive following widespread damage to crops and pasture.

On 25 November the Government issues an urgent appeal for 78,100 metric tons of emergency food aid.

WFP Niger shares the urgent appeal with the representatives of all donor countries in the capital, Niamey, indicating that the agency is preparing an emergency operation.

December 2004

The government finalises its National Emergency Plan, incorporating the activities of the National Food Crisis Prevention and Mitigation Mechanism, the WFP emergency operation and other UN agencies' responses.

The US-based Famine Early Warning System (FEWSNET) lists Niger as one of the countries "requiring urgent attention" as a result of the drought and locust invasion. Niger remains on that list until June 2005, when it is upgraded to the "emergency" category.

January 2005

WFP's needs for Niger are highlighted in the 14 January edition of the Estimated Food Needs and Shortfalls for WFP Operational Activities (known as the Yellow Pages) sent to members of WFP's Executive Board and posted on its website.

The government's emergency food reserves are dwindling.

February 2005

WFP approves an emergency operation targeting 400,000 people (Total costs: US$2.9 million; 6,500 metric tons).

WFP Niger shifts its priorities from the development programme to respond to the emergency, borrowing funds and food from its existing operations. By the end of June, WFP Niger has delivered almost all of the food it had originally planned to distribute all year. Some 11,000 tons of food is distributed to 493,000 people in the most affected areas.

WFP's Regional Director for West Africa visits Niger to raise the profile of the emergency operation and advocate for Niger.

March 2005

At WFP's initiative, the UN Country Team and the Prime Minister's Food Crisis Cell organise a donors meeting on 17 March 2005, appealing for US$7 million.

WFP issues a press release to give international attention to the food crisis unfolding in Niger. It has little effect on the resourcing situation.

On 30 March, the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) in West Africa launches a Consolidated Appeal in Dakar, including a special addendum for Niger.

April 2005

WFP and Helen Keller International warn of "critical malnutrition" levels and a looming food crisis in a press release describing the results of their nutritional survey. The survey finds that 350,000 children under five could be suffering from malnutrition.

The chronic malnutrition which plagues Niger each year is also clearly demonstrated in the survey. The prevalence of stunting, which affects about 61 percent of children in the two regions surveyed, confirms that Niger has a significant on-going and structural malnutrition problem that needs to be addressed.

Médecins Sans Frontières warns that acute malnutrition is rising dramatically. Every week some 250 new children are brought to its feeding centres in Maradi, up from 170 per week at the beginning of the year. GianCarlo Cirri, WFP's Country Director, is quoted saying more donations are urgently needed.

May 2005

WFP helps MSF open four additional therapeutic feeding centres throughout the country, reinforcing efforts to stem rising malnutrition.

On 19 May, the UN Resident Coordinator launched a Flash appeal for Niger, seeking US$16.1 million. This amount was increased to US$18.3 million in June in order to cover WFP's requirements.

Jan Egeland, the UN's Humanitarian Coordinator, says that 150,000 children will die unless they get help soon.

Niger and the other countries in the region are again highlighted in the 'Yellow Pages' distributed to WFP's Executive Board members.

Luxembourg makes the first contribution of US$320,000 to the US$2.9 million emergency operation.

June 2005

With granaries empty and cereal prices soaring, the government of Niger appeals for emergency food aid. The market price for cattle and other animals has plummeted, making it almost impossible for poor farmers to sell their herds to buy staple food.

At the Annual Session of WFP's Executive Board in Rome, the Regional Director for West Africa describes the situation as "very dire" and asks board members to give "special consideration" to Niger, where WFP's emergency and development operations are seriously underfunded.

A WFP/National Early Warning System/FEWS-NET mission takes place, confirming the magnitude of the crisis and revealing pockets of acute needs warranting immediate emergency response in terms of food aid, seeds and animal fodder provision.

On 22 June, WFP holds a press conference in Dakar, alerting the international community to the disaster unfolding in Niger and the funds needed to respond to the emergency.

On 24 June, WFP's Senior Deputy Executive Director addresses donor government representatives in Dakar on the situation in Niger, Mali and Mauritania.

On 30 June, WFP's Executive Director addresses the Security Council and complains that only 11 percent of the requested funding of the Flash Appeal for Niger has been received.

Two more contributions are confirmed (Germany - US$627,353 and UK - US$912,408).

July 2005

6 July - As the leaders of the most powerful nations in the world gather in Gleneagles for the G8 Summit, WFP is urging them to remember a simple fact: hunger and malnutrition are still the world's biggest killers, taking the lives of more people every year than AIDS, malaria and tuberculosis combined.

8 July - Niger is one of the countries whose debts are cancelled by the G8 club of the world's most powerful nations. But its food crisis is not mentioned at the G8 summit in Gleneagles.

13 July 2005 - WFP revises its strategy and appeals for an overall total of US$16 million in order to implement free food distributions.

WFP issues a press release announcing that it will triple the number of people it seeks to help to a new total of 1.2 million.

14 July 2005 - The UN's Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food, Jean Ziegler, returns from a visit to Niger. He calls for the immediate distribution of free food to vulnerable groups, saying the response of the international community to the crisis had been totally inadequate to date.

19 July 2005 - The BBC becomes the first major international broadcaster to show images of the crisis: it airs footage gathered by WFP, showing harrowing pictures of children dying of malnutrition right before the cameras.

20 July 2005 - The UN renews and increases its Flash appeal to US$30 million - US$10m is received.

WFP's Regional Director for West Africa visits Niger again.

26 July 2005 - The first major convoy of 25 trucks, carrying close to 1,000 tons of food, departs Niger 's capital, Niamey, on a 5-day journey to the worst-hit region of Maradi.

"In Niger , the aid is now flooding in, but the fact that the world can be moved only by graphic images of suffering is nothing to celebrate. Many of the children who featured in the news reports are already beyond help," says WFP's Executive Director, James Morris in an editorial in the Guardian newspaper.

WFP receives more donations for Niger in the last 10 days of June than it has in the previous 8 months.

29 July 2005 - WFP airlifts to bring 80 metric tons of High Energy Biscuits to meet the immediate needs of 100,000 beneficiaries start.

August 2005

3 August - WFP's operation is further expanded: the organization now requires US$57.6 million to feed 2.5 million people.