Niger: Population surging while farm land is shrinking

News and Press Release
Originally published
NIAMEY, 7 June 2007 (IRIN) - With too little arable land and too many people to feed, Niger is heading towards a permanent food security crisis, experts said this week.

"Comparing the area of cultivatable land with the demographic level shows clearly that Niger is very close to saturation," said Hassane Saley, executive secretary of the National Council for Sustainable Development (CNDD).

According to new research by another national institute, the Niger National Institute of Agronomical Research (INRAN), available farm land is shrinking by as much as 200,000 hectares per year because of desertification and soil degradation.

80 percent of Niger's estimated 13.4 million inhabitants rely on subsistence agriculture, with most of their farming restricted to a short five-month growing season during the June-October rainy season.

Furthermore the land has become less fertile. Each hectare of the estimated 15 million hectares of cultivatable land in Niger only produces 350 kg of millet compared to 430 kg in 1950, according to INRAN.

Meanwhile, Niger's population is increasing faster than any other country in the world. On average, a Nigerien woman will give birth to 13 children in her lifetime.

Even after the country's extremely high child death rate - one in every five children dies before the age of five - Niger's population is still growing at 3.3 percent a year.

Fertility experts say birth rates are unlikely to go down until the levels of child deaths are reduced.

If the current demographic trend continues, per capita cultivatable land will diminish from what was 1.2 hectares in 2005 to 0.87 in 2015.

Three quarters of the country's 1.2 million square kilometres are deemed desert, with the densest population centres in the semi-arid south of the country.

"We are exerting more and more pressure on natural resources which are already being degraded, while at the same time there are more mouths to feed," said CNDD's Saley.

INRAN's Samba Ly and Tahirou Abdoulaye said in an article published this week in the government publication Niger Progress that reversing the slump in food production would require a massive investment in agriculture with irrigation systems, fertilisers and the transfer of technologies from more developed African countries.

Niger is the poorest country in the world, according to the World Bank, which also deems Niger's government among the most corrupt.

Every year there are serious nutritional crises in Niger due to poor diet, mothers not giving babies enough breast milk, meagre health care services, inadequate clean water and poor sanitation. In some years rains fail and there are food shortages become even more acute.