NIAMEY, 24 January 2012 (IRIN) - Nearly half Niger's population does not have enough to eat and the government says it is facing a grain shortfall of 692,501 tons, following another severe drought across the Sahel.
The government says it needs 3.8 million tons of cereals to feed six million people spread across 6,981 villages, equating to 49.4 percent of the affected zones.
In a survey conducted in November 2011, the government's Early Warning System projected the 2011-2012 "winter" gross cereal production for millet, sorghum, rice, wheat and fonio (one of West Africa's most ancient cereals) at 3.8 million tons - 27 percent down on 2010-2011. Grain production last season was about 3.2 million tons.
The Early Warning System, which monitors and forecasts food security needs, has identified three major areas as reporting deficits: Tillabéry in the west; Agadez in the north; and Diffa in the east; with respective shortfalls of 164,146 tons, 123,576 tons, and 68,115 tons.
Boukanda, a village with a population of 1,000 about 50km west of the capital Niamey, is typical of many food insecure villages which have been largely abandoned by their younger residents.
"The able-bodied and young people of the village preferred to leave for big cities or abroad. They have little to do here," Adamou Talba, the marabout (religions teacher) of Boukanda, said.
Only a few "wealthier" families pound sorghum instead of millet, the main staple of the village. These people still have small supplies but they will not last long.
"There's just a little bit in the granary," said Balkissa Adamou, a villager.
Boukanda village chief Seyni Seydou said the rains ended just when the plants needed water, and grasshoppers and other insects finished off the crops.
"In our village, some people have been left with just seven bundles [of grain], whereas previously nearly 700 could be harvested," he added. The Early Warning System puts Boukanda's food deficit at 90 percent.
Appeals for help
Concerned by the current situation, Cheick Boureima Abdou Daoud, a citizen of Niger, donated 3,000 tons of cereal to the relief effort. "I want to kick-start action so that other citizens of Niger, who can afford it, can also help those in need," he said.
While previous governments tended to avoid admitting to food crises, the current government is different: In August 2011, it asked for 100 billion francs CFA (about US$198 million) in donor aid.
President Mahamadou Issoufou, addressing the UN General Assembly in September 2011, said: "Knowing that we would have a very large deficit this harvest crop, we decided... to alert the international community. I would like, at this highest level of this forum, to renew once more our appeal to help Niger."
Donors have pledged help, and the UN has launched a Consolidated Appeals Process (CAP) for $229 million.
"The CAP aims to provide humanitarian aid and to strengthen the resilience of millions of men, women and vulnerable children," said Guido Cornale, the UN Children's Fund (UNICEF) representative in Niger who is also acting humanitarian coordinator in the country.