Two top United Nations officials will travel later this week to Niger, where 5.4 million people are struggling to get enough to eat, part of a wider emergency affecting at least 10 million people across the Sahel region.
Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator Valerie Amos and UN Development Programme (UNDP) Administrator Helen Clark will conduct a two-day joint mission beginning on Thursday.
They are scheduled to meet with President Mahamadou Issoufu, Prime Minister Brigi Rafini and other key Government officials to highlight the importance of preparations and early action to tackle the food and nutrition crisis in Niger.
The visit will begin a day after Ms. Amos and the heads of many UN aid agencies gather in Rome for a meeting to discuss how to tackle the crisis in the Sahel region of West and Central Africa.
The UN has been sounding the alarm since last September that the situation in the Sahel region was likely to become a major humanitarian situation by the northern spring this year unless something was done to reverse the trend.
“We are extremely concerned that millions of people will be affected by a combination of drought, poverty and high grain prices, which, coupled with environmental degradation and chronic underdevelopment, is expected to result in a new food and nutrition crisis,” Assistant Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs Catherine Bragg told reporters in New York.
Ms. Bragg, who visited Senegal last week, said that people in that country, as well as Burkina Faso, Mali, Mauritania, Niger, Chad, northern Cameroon and northern Nigeria, are all likely to be affected over the coming months.
“For many, the crisis has already begun,” she stated. “We already know that an estimated 10 million people or more are struggling to get enough to eat, including 5.4 million in Niger alone.”
In the region, more than a million children under the age of five risk severe acute malnutrition – that is up from 300,000 last year, she added.
Ms. Bragg said the governments of Mali, Mauritania, Burkina Faso, Niger and Chad have all declared an emergency situation and called for international assistance, and most have put forward plans to deal with the crisis and to build people’s resilience to such shocks.
Essential activities include selling cereal and pasture at subsidized prices, distributing seeds and providing livestock support, as well as income-generating activities and the replenishment of national food security shocks.
“We learned from experience in the Horn of Africa that early warning must be followed by early action,” said Ms. Bragg. “Today, we know what is coming, and we know what to do to save lives.”
She added that $724 million will be needed for the revised Sahel Regional Strategy, which takes into account the existing Government plans and the humanitarian appeals for Niger and Chad.
“Not long ago, we were calling for early action to contain the food crisis in the Horn of Africa. We now have an opportunity to demonstrate that we have learned our lessons from that crisis: that both early action and efforts to re-build resilience are critical to the Sahel,” said Ms. Bragg, who is also Deputy UN Emergency Relief Coordinator.
As part of their visit, Ms. Amos and Miss Clark plan to visit Tillaberi in the southwest of Niger, to see how resilience and humanitarian programmes are addressing the immediate food needs of people and also helping communities prepare for and cope with future crises.