800,000 infants face starvation in Niger

Click to follow
The Independent Online

Torrential rains, following 13 months of drought, are adding a savage new twist to what the UN calls the world's "number one forgotten and neglected emergency" - which has forced parents to feed poisonous leaves to their children to try to keep them alive.

Some 800,000 children under five now need emergency food supplies, but aid has been desperately slow in coming even though the crisis has been predicted since late last year, coming to a head when the world's attention was focused on Africa through the Live8 concert and the Gleneagles summit at the beginning of this month.

The UN said yesterday that more aid had 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 it had been desperately seeking funds to avert catastrophe. Planes carrying food are due to arrive over the weekend - the first British flight took off yesterday - but experts say it will take at least two months to get a full rescue effort under way.

The rain - like the aid - has been too long delayed. "It is too late, and there is too much of it," Natasha Quist, Oxfam's regional director for West Africa, told The Independent on Sunday yesterday from near Maradi, in the heart of the famine area of southern Niger.

Violent rainstorms are washing away farmers' precious topsoil, she said. Many are rushing out to till the soil to try to get a harvest after the long drought, but do not have enough seeds to plant.

But at least the rains are giving them hope, while they just spell further disaster for the nomadic pastoralists, who have been the worst-hit of all. On Friday, she said, she had met a family of 50 people near the town of Azagor, who had lost 197 of their 200 cattle in the past two and a half months and the remaining three were dying.

"It is very deceptive. It is amazing how fertile the land is, if there is rain. It is suddenly green, with lots of shrubs. The cattle are eating them, but after two and a half months with little to eat, they are getting very sick. It is as bad as feeding a severely malnourished child a bar of chocolate."

And this is just the latest in a chapter of disasters. Niger, the second poorest country on Earth, has suffered years of economic decline, living permanently on the brink of catastrophe. Then last year the rains failed and the country was hit by a plague of locusts, which gobbled up the little that had managed to grow.

It was clear from last autumn that it faced an emergency this year. The UN appealed for international aid in November, and again in March, but until recently the industrialised world had provided $1m of the $16m requested - even though it would have been 80 times cheaper to save each child's life in November than now.

The Niger government was equally remiss, downplaying the danger while elections were held last year - and failing to provide food when the famine broke out.

Both were put to shame by the relatively poor people of Niger itself, who have given $1.5m to a national "solidarity" fund, until recently eclipsing Britain's aid.

Meanwhile people in the famine areas have been cutting down on meals, to try to eke out supplies, since January. Recently they have had to resort to poisonous leaves, which have to be boiled for hours to make them safe to eat.

The crisis came to a head, virtually unnoticed, at the time of Live8 and the G8 summit in Gleneagles, both of which focused on the plight of Africa.

"I was in London at the time", says Ms Quist. "I was thrilled to see all the talk of making poverty history. But at times I was shaking with frustration because we could not get the message across.

"The response since the television pictures has been fantastic. But we are now too late, for many of the children are dying."

Comments