Niger: Food Security Warning 15 Jun 2005 - Hunger season worsens

Worsening conditions in northern agro-pastoral zones of Niger

Background of food security problem

Households in the agro-pastoral and the pastoral areas of Niger have been struggling to cope with the combined effects of drought and locusts, which devastated parts of the country in 2004. Recently, conditions deteriorated further and households in these areas are now facing extreme food insecurity. This deterioration is evidenced by a lack of pasture and animal feed, an unusually high reliance of poor households on wild foods, unacceptably high levels of severe malnutrition in localized areas, and constrained access to staple cereals due to high prices and limited availability. Around 2,500,000 people in the pastoral and agro- pastoral areas of the country (see map) are estimated to need emergency assistance, according to a joint WFP/AGHRYMET/SAP/FEWS NET assessment conducted in March 2005.

As livestock form the basis of rural livelihoods for the population most at risk, the current and near term status of animals is a critical determinant of household food security now and in the coming months. Members of pastoral and agro-pastoral households, who left their homes in November to take their animals southward in the annual search for pasture and water, are currently returning to their northern homesteads with their animals. This movement has been triggered by dwindling pastures in the few areas of remaining livestock concentration in the south, and the start of the rainy season. Good rainfall during the months of June and July might begin to alleviate the crisis by providing pasture to animals and wild foods for poor households. However, even if the rains are regular and well distributed through the north, pasture will not fully regenerate until the end of July. At the moment, animals are severely weakened after the long dry season, and this poor state, combined with the lack of fodder along northward routes could translate into the death of a significant number of animals in the absence of appropriate action.

Recent indicators of crisis

One indication of the degraded conditions of livestock is that prices are significantly lower than they were at the same time last year. For example, in the hard hit pastoral zone of Dakoro, the price of a cow is only 40% of what it was the same time last year. Given that last year's prices were already seasonally low to begin with (this being the end of the dry season), such a substantial loss in value is extremely worrying. At the same time, cereal prices are 45% higher than they were last year at the same time. As a result, pastoral and agro-pastoral households are able to buy with one cow only around 20% of the grain they would typically be able to obtain at this time of year. In other words, a household would have to sell five cows to get the same amount of cereal that one cow would normally secure. This is simply beyond the means of the majority of pastoral and agro-pastoral households.

An outcome of these increasingly negative trends is the high level of severe malnutrition recorded among children under the age of five in Maradi Region recently. This poor nutritional status has been attributed to a lack of access to cereals and milk, and a heavy reliance on wild food, which makes up two of the three daily meals for poor households. Recent surveys conducted by Medecins sans Frontieres (MSF) found Severe Acute Malnutrition (SAM) rates of 2.4% in Dakoro (Maradi) and 2.9% in Keita (Tahoua), which exceed the World Health Organization 2-3% emergency threshold for SAM. In addition, under-five child mortality rates in Maradi (2.2/10,000/day) and Tahoua (2.4/10,000/day) also exceed emergency levels (set at 2/10,000/day). As further evidence of the food crisis, an increase in school drop outs has been reported, caused by the departure of entire families from rural areas. In Ouallam, Tillabery, 40% of primary school children have left school.

Decision-maker implications

Due to the worsening situation, the government and its partners are expanding several emergency programs in the worst-off areas. In addition to the sale of 20,000 MT of subsidized cereals scheduled to take place in June and July, the government is planning to give 20,000 MT of cereal to the poorest households as a loan that should be paid back after the next harvest, four months from now. The emergency programs currently being implemented by the government and NGOs should be extended through the entire pastoral and agro-pastoral zone.

Given the scale of the crisis, the programs so far have been limited, as they have been mainly centered on the sale of subsidized cereals. Free food distributions are required in localized cases, such as northern Tillabery, northern Dakoro, and northern Tahoua; in these areas, poor households will not be able to afford to purchase cereals even at the subsidized rates. In addition, because this is the beginning of the agricultural season, food for work is an increasingly inappropriate mechanism for delivering food assistance. Free food distributions will become even more essential in the coming month if the rains do not come on time or in adequate amounts.

In addition, the current actions do not adequately address the urgent need for animal feed. In order to meet the needs of livestock during their movement to the north and before the regeneration of pasture in late July, the on going program of subsidized sale of animal feed should be strengthened and extended to all pastoral and agro-pastoral areas. In addition, subsidized animal feed should be sold along the return travel routes of animals.

Finally, faced with extreme food insecurity, many poor households in the agro-pastoral areas have consumed their seed reserves, which are traditionally preserved until the start of the season. There is an urgent need to expand the current free millet and sorghum seed distribution to households as early as possible and to implement as soon as possible a bean seed distribution program. Beans could be planted until August wherever millet planting fails.

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