Niger's agony spreads to her neighbours

Sahel in crisis: Food aid is trickling in, but agencies warn that three other countries in the region need immediate outside help
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The Independent Online

While aid, albeit belatedly, has begun to be distributed in Niger, the poorest part of the poorest continent in the world is in the grip of a disaster with little help from the outside.

The Sahel was once one of the richest parts of Africa, both culturally and economically. Its decline to the international margins has been dramatic, and the region now suffers from endemic cycles of droughts, locusts and food shortages. The current crisis, however, is far more severe than any other in recent times.

Around 2.5 million people are in need of urgent help in Niger. But 4.2 million more are in similar situations elsewhere, and the UN warns that efforts to provide relief for them "remain critically underfunded at the most crucial time of the year". Like Niger, the blight experienced by the other Sahel states did not rate a mention in the Africa initiative announced during the G8 summit or the hugely publicised Live 8 concerts. But while the subsequent focus by the media on Niger eventually led to donations coming through, the same has not happened with its neighbours.

In Mali, 2.2 million are affected by the crisis, with at least 5,000 very young children suffering severe malnutrition and infant mortality reaching an all-time high. Agricultural output has fallen by a massive 42 per cent in one year, and much of the withered land will take years to recover. The provinces of Gao on the Niger River, Kidal in the north-east, and Kayes near the Mauritanian border are the worst hit. The UN's World Food Programme is feeding 445,000 of the dispossessed. But only $2.7m (£1.5m) of the $7.5m needed for relief operations has been forthcoming so far.

The stories of suffering in Mali replicate those of Niger. Iskr Issou, a farmer at Koulikoro, describes how the lives of his family of eight disintegrated. "We waited for the rains to come and they did not. Our crops died, we had nothing to eat and nothing from our farm to sell at the markets," he said. "Then we started selling off our belongings one by one. And now we have nothing, we are just beggars. Most of what food we get we give to the children, but they are sick and I fear for their lives."

In Mauritania, 600,000 people are facing severe problems, mainly due to the ravages of the worst locust invasion in 15 years. The UN has a three-year project to address the country's endemic problems, but so far has only $10m of the $30m needed.

Aid agencies point out that crucial time was lost in Niger because of the West's slow response. Alister Shields, logistics officer with Save the Children, says aid had to be flown in, but if appeals had been heeded earlier, supplies could have been brought in cheaper by sea. Agencies fear similar problems for the rest of the affected Sahel.

There is also concern that the declaration by Mamadou Tandja, President of Niger, that reports of starvation are "foreign propaganda... deception to obtain increased funding" will put off donors.