Niger, one of the world's poorest countries where 60 per cent of the 11.5m population live on $1 a day, is only the tip of the iceberg. African countries in which Concern is working are facing into food crises of a staggering scale. Rwanda, Tanzania, Kenya, Burundi and Somalia are in difficulty.
Thirty million people are in need of urgent help. Without immediate international action we will see these situations deteriorate over the coming weeks and months.
The UN predicted the food crisis in Niger but a UN appeal raised only one-third of the $40 million needed then to provide food aid. More aid has been pledged in the past 10 days, since television pictures of starving children began appearing on the world's screens, than in the previous 10 months when the UN had been desperately seeking funds to avert catastrophe.
The reasons for the crisis are complex. They include drought, grinding poverty, conflict, bad governance and HIV/Aids. Concern is working in almost all of the countries facing the food crisis, feeding the hungry - as in Niger, Sudan and Ethiopia - and tackling the root causes of hunger through improving education, health and agriculture and providing water.
ETHIOPIA: The Ethiopian prime minister has said that the food shortage there is more widespread than in 1984 when almost one million Ethiopians died. He and the WFP have called on the international community to send substantial food aid immediately to avoid a tragedy.
ERITREA: The most recent Famine Emergency Warning System (FEWS Net) report says much of neighbouring Eritrea's population of 4.5 million is also in peril. More than a million people are threatened with starvation as Eritrea's last two rainy seasons have failed to produce the necessary water for food crops and livestock. The UN believes that 400,000 tonnes of food aid is needed to prevent malnutrition or starvation on a large scale.
MOZAMBIQUE: After two years of devastating floods, a prolonged drought has affected an area of about 100,000 households and disease and hunger stalk the land.
Malawi's President Bakili Muluzi declared a state of emergency in February.
In Swaziland and Lesotho, families continue to face food shortages, and in Zimbabwe, escalating food prices, unemployment and political instability continue to leave many families without enough food to eat. There is a real danger that Zimbabwe could tip into famine.
Beyond the current problems with the relief food pipeline, which donors need to address, the chronic food insecurity conditions in the region require interventions geared at supporting livelihoods and helping people to survive. And once the emergency phase is over, livelihood systems will need several successive good rainfall seasons to recover fully.
AID is starting to arrive in other countries but, as in Niger, the delay has cost lives. There are obviously some places where urgent intervention is needed and we must learn the lessons of Niger. Delay costs lives and the cost of aid then skyrockets. A child who could have been saved for less than €2 last year will now have to receive €80 of aid. Many people subsist increasingly on the traditional "famine foods" of collected wild roots, leaves and grass seeds, which tend to need a lot of work and use a lot of firewood to prepare. Delay means that the food needed includes both specialised therapeutic preparations for the treatment of child malnutrition and bulk cereals and pulses for family rations.
The food crisis in Niger, where 82 per cent of the population depends on subsistence farming, had been predicted for almost a year. Concern began taking steps and building up its teams and capacity to respond months ago. Humanitarian agencies like ourselves pre-position as many supplies as possible to respond to these emergencies. But the level of supplies is dependent on the funding available.
The Irish Government has been supportive of the Concern aid programme and reacted faster than many others. Minister Conor Lenihan allocated €1 million to the Niger emergency in addition to the existing Irish programmes. The Department of Foreign Affairs leadership and support is vital. The question now is will the world respond quickly enough to stop the crisis in other African countries?
Concern's first air shipment of food, medical supplies and equipment arrived in Niamey on Tuesday, July 19. It held 30 metric tonnes of CSB (enriched food for moderately malnourished children), five tonnes of Plumpynut (enriched peanut butter paste for severely malnourished children), medical kits specifically for nutrition programmes, plastic sheeting and blankets. Concern Logistics staff are today busy sourcing food on the local and international markets, and pricing air freight and shippingoptions.
Gerry Reynolds is Head of Communications, Concern Worldwide. This article was published in The Sunday Independent (Ireland) 31st July, 2005.