Niger food crisis: A story from the front lines

Originally published
By Kent Page

MARADI, Niger, 1 August 2005 - Her face distraught, her gaunt body sweating in the midday heat, Indo arrives at a UNICEF-supported therapeutic feeding centre in this community in southern Niger. Indo is carrying her 21-month old baby girl, Salima, in her arms.

Salima's arms and legs hang limply, her spine and ribs protruding prominently under her skin. She has barely enough energy to nurse at her mother's breast for a few seconds before her heads falls back over her shoulders, her eyes closed.

"It's been two years that we've not been able to grow anything," says Indo. "It's because there's been no rain. We have no food anymore."

Indo is 28. Her face plainly shows the stress and exhaustion she is struggling with, having walked alone for two days straight from her village, Koumaji, to Maradi. She carried Salima in her arms the whole way, a distance of 35 km, in the relentless sun. They had nothing to eat on the way.

Salima is the youngest and the weakest of Indo's five children. "I have left my other children at home with my mother," says Indo. "My mother is old and weak but she will have to take care of them. I don't know how long we'll have to be here. I think Salima is very sick."

The road to recovery

It's not Salima's first time to Maradi. Indo brought her here six months ago, when Salima was even weaker than she is now. The food crisis in Niger has been going on for some time, affecting hundreds of thousands of children like Salima.

"The only thing I can give her is some millet porridge, maybe one or two times a day. There's no milk. It's not enough. I'm scared for Salima," Indo says, her voice breaking.

A few minutes later, Salima is weighed, her mid-upper arm circumference measured and her height taken on a measuring board. Everything is recorded on her chart, although Salima is oblivious to it all.

But it seems that she has arrived in time. Salima is now getting the care and assistance she needs at this overworked therapeutic feeding centre run by Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF). The centre is filled with hundreds of other children, many of whom were in even worse condition than Salima when they arrived. The children here are fortunate: They are now on the road to recovering from severe malnutrition.

UNICEF's role

UNICEF Niger is assisting in the care and treatment of children suffering severe and moderate malnutrition and in reducing the effects of household food insecurity in Niger through a variety of activities. These include providing 10 fixed therapeutic feeding centres and 21 outreach therapeutic centres with essential supplies, including therapeutic milk and food, essential drugs, oral rehydration salts, deworming tablets, growth measuring boards, weighing scales, and other items.

In collaboration with the World Food Programme, 614 tons of cereals have been delivered to 62 affected villages, benefiting an estimated 200,000 people, including 40,000 children under five. About 900 additional tons of cereals are being delivered to 90 additional villages, and approximately 6 tons of seed (corn, wheat, potato) have also been provided.

UNICEF is training 85 national health workers, including doctors, nurses, mid-wives and health administrators, in responding to severe and moderate malnutrition.

UNICEF is urgently appealing for $14.6 million to boost its response in Niger. UNICEF's immediate aims are to:

  • Treat an estimated 32,000 children suffering from severe malnutrition and 160,000 children suffering from moderate malnutrition.

  • Reinforce the capacity of the government agencies and communities to deal with the immediate and recurrent food crises in Niger.

  • Assure adequate services for affected populations in Niger in health (e.g. measles immunization and vitamin A for all malnourished children, malaria prevention, etc.); water/sanitation (e.g. assure adequate water and sanitation facilities, provide potable water, etc.); and protection (e.g. sensitization campaigns to avoid the risks of sexual exploitation and abuse of minors and women at food distributions).