Drought and locust plague leave Niger on the brink of famine

Aid agencies have warned that one in 10 children in the worst affected areas will die as a result of the official reluctance to act sooner to prevent famine. The government of Niger, the second poorest country in the world, warned last November that it would need help feeding 3.6 million people, including 800,000 children under five.

But while aid flooded into high-profile conflict areas such as Darfur in Sudan, Niger's pleas for help for a quarter of its population went unheard.

Jan Egeland, the outspoken UN under-secretary general, said last month that Niger was "the number one forgotten and neglected emergency in the world" and criticised international donor countries for ignoring his appeal for $16.2m (£9.3m) in emergency food assistance. By mid-July, the UN had received only $3.8m, even though more than 150,000 children are said to be severely malnourished. Most of these will now die before they can be fed.

After a five-day visit to the region, Jean Ziegler, a UN representative, said last week: "The vulnerable groups are on the brink of being wiped out, the children, the sick, the elderly."

Last month, 2,000 protesters marched into the capital Niamey to demand that the state distribute food to the starving, but government officials said at the time that it would be "foolish" to deplete its emergency stocks. Instead, the government offered to lend the poorest families cereal stocks to be repaid at the next harvest.

The UN's World Food Programme said it has finally managed to secure some emergency food aid, but the rations may take several weeks to reach those most desperately in need. It is estimated that the country needs more than 200,000 tons of food to make up for its shortfall.

Niger suffers a "hungry season" every year, as there is little irrigation for the 80 per cent of the population that depend on subsistence farming. But last year, drought and locusts destroyed most of the harvest and almost 40 per cent of livestock fodder. Farmers have had to either watch their cattle starve to death or sell them for a tenth of their normal value. As the prices of staples such as millet and sorghum soar, the money they receive for their livestock is not enough to buy food for their families.

Aissa Maman, a farmer, told Oxfam: "Prices have multiplied too many times. While I used to be able to buy one bag of 100kg millet after selling one or two healthy goats I would now need to sell three to five goats for the same amount."

By November last year, thousands of families had left rural villages and headed for Niamey and neighbouring countries such as Nigeria, Benin and Togo to look for food and work. Aid workers tell of how hundreds of people are walking through a desert littered with cattle carcasses looking for feeding centres and Nigerian immigration officials say thousands of people are trying to cross the border each day.

Milron Tetonidis of Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) told reporters: "There are children dying every day in our centres. We're completely overwhelmed, there'd better be other people coming quickly to help us out - I mean, the response has been desperately slow." MSF has also warned that the rains, which have finally arrived, are now making conditions worse by spreading malaria and diarrhoea in the camps.

Niger's neighbours, Mali and Mauritania, were also hit by the plague of locusts that swept through the southern Sahel last year and are also suffering from similar food shortages. Nigeria, which is the richest country in the area, has provided some food to its neighbours but has echoed the aid agencies' pleas for extra help to be provided.

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