Monday, March 01, 2010

Chad and Niger: Neighbours in crisis

Two UN humanitarian coordinators have said the central African countries of Chad and Niger are on the verge of widescale famine. Michele Flavigna, the UN representative in Chad told a news conference last week almost one in five people are starving in that country. “Two million Chadians, or 18 percent of the population, are in a situation of food insecurity," he said. "A great deal needs to be done to counter this grave problem," he said.

Neighboring Niger is also facing a severe food shortage that could affect 7.8 million people, according to one estimate released in late January. Niger’s situation is worsened by political woes as its government was overthrown last week in a military coup. A junta calling itself the Supreme Council for the Restoration of Democracy stormed the presidential palace and captured president Mamadou Tandja and his ministers in a four-hour gunbattle that left at least three people dead. The junta gave no indication of how long it intended to hold power but called on the people and the international community to support its actions. A UN official in Dakar said Niger needs a stable government to address the food crisis, and urged the new military junta to move swiftly to set elections.

In Chad, drought has led to a 35 percent fall in crop production leading to severe food shortages. The rate of global acute malnutrition for children under five in the worst-affected areas stands at almost 30 percent - almost double the emergency threshold set by the World Health Organisation. The UN is transporting 30,000 tonnes of food aid into the country from its regional supply base in Cameroon, but says tackling malnutrition will be difficult due to a shortage of human resources and functioning rural health facilities. They are calling on NGOs to increase their number of personnel who can intervene on the ground.

In Niger the approaching food crisis has prompted the UN and NGO partners to issue an appeal for aid internationally. Malek Triki, public information officer for the World Food Program said Niger is facing a structural state of high acute malnutrition and has one of the highest rates of population increase in the world. “It also has a harsh environment, made even worse by climate change and the poor management of environmental resources,” he said. The situation is similar to the 2005 famine though the chaos over the coup is unlikely to help relief efforts.

Both Niger and Chad are in the Sahel desert region which faces perennial food shortages due to unpredictable rains that can cut into crop yields and the region's poverty has been aggravated by various rebel conflicts. The weather in the Sahel is influenced by the erratic behaviour of the Atlantic Multidecadal Oscillation (similar to the El Nino Southern Oscillation that causes such havoc with weather patterns in the South Pacific). Both Niger and Chad had an unusually short rainy season in 2009 leading to fears for this year’s crop.

Both Niger and Chad are already near the bottom of the UN Human Development Index, a composite benchmark that includes literacy rates, life expectancy and economic wealth measures. Chad is ranked 175 and Niger is ranked rock bottom at 182. Niger’s life expectancy is just 50.8 years (Australia’s is 81.4), just 28.7 percent of people over 15 are literate and the per capita GDP is $627 (Australia’s is $34,923 with Liechtenstein the world’s highest at $85, 382). Chad’s figures aren’t much better. Life expectancy is actually worse than Niger’s at just 48.6 years. Adult literacy is 31.8 percent and GDP per capita is $1,477.

Chad’s problems have been exacerbated in recent years by an influx of refugees fleeing the fighting in neighbouring Darfur. Tensions between ethnic groups in the north and in the south of the country have further contributed to political and economic instability. Niger is still recovering from the 2005 famine with child malnutrition a critical issue. Agriculture is the mainstay of Niger’s weak economy, with 82 percent of the population relying on farming. Its story is one of entrenched and deepening poverty with little interest or attention from the outside world.

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