The United Nations rural development arm is helping to improve agricultural programmes in West Africa’s Sahel region, especially in Niger, which is currently in the throes of a growing food crisis.
Recurrent food shortages have impacted the Sahel, a narrow band south of the Sahara desert also including Burkina Faso, Chad, Eritrea, Mali, Mauritania, Nigeria, Senegal and Sudan.
The last severe drought in 2005 resulted in a famine that claimed 1 million lives and affected another 50 million people.
Scant and irregular rainfall since last year has touched off the latest crisis, with Niger – where 7.1 million people, or half its population, is going hungry – at is centre. Nearly 90 per cent of rural households are at risk, including herders, as well as women who head their households and their dependents.
A large number of families in the Maradi region of southern Niger are relying on cereal banks to sustain themselves, according to the UN International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD) said.
“We are responding quickly to refill the village granaries, as well as provide inputs such as seeds and small tools to be used for the upcoming planting season to increase the resilience of rural households to deal with a crisis of this scale,” said Mohamed Béavogui, Director of the agency’s West and Central Africa Division.
Mr. Béavogui recently visited the country to identify what steps need to be taken in the near future, beyond emergency assistance, to address the problems of food insecurity, malnutrition and rural poverty.
“IFAD is working closely with United Nations agencies and other partners to concretize the emerging policy dialogue for a new rural development strategy that will help generate structural changes and stop the recurrence of famine,” he said.
Drought, crop failures, pest infestations, rising food prices and poverty have set off severe food shortages, with poor grazing land forcing most rural families to sell their tools and herds to purchase what little food is available.
To support long-term development in Niger, IFAD is helping more than 50,000 women in six communes through cereal banks, traditionally built to store crops immediately after harvest to allow farmers to sell during the dry season when market prices are higher.
But with the food shortages becoming ever more severe, people in rural areas are using the banks now to put on their families’ tables to maintain their strength to work on their farms.
Since 2008, cereal production has dropped by nearly a third, according to the UN Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO). Also, food prices remain high, despite a decline from their peak in two years ago.
In the past three decades, IFAD has mobilized nearly $240 million in funding for eight projects and programmes in Niger.
Earlier this month, the UN World Food Programme (WFP) announced that it was scaling up its operations in the country.
“We’re doubling the size of our operations and ramping up already significant interventions, to take even swifter action to protect these children,” said Josette Sheeran, Executive Director of the Rome-based agency.
WFP, at the Government’s request, is already providing vital food aid to some 2.3 million people for the summer lean season, when food is scarce.
The agency is now planning a new emergency operation to assist an additional two million people and specifically targeting more children aged 6 to 23 months to boost their nutrition. It also plans to increase the number of malnourished pregnant women and nursing mothers it is feeding, up from 24,000 to 105,000, and boost assistance at therapeutic feeding centres.
WFP estimates it will need an extra $100 million to scale up its operations in Niger.