Wednesday, August 04, 2010

Niger's famine kills celebrations of 50th anniversary of independence

Celebrations in Niger for the 50th anniversary of its independence from France yesterday were muted as it faced up to a massive famine that threatens millions. The UN estimates half of the West African country’s 14 million people are at risk, with the number of severely food-insecure people increasing significantly from 3.3 million people as recently as April. The sombre mood was reflected with few public events marking the independence milestone. Among them was a simple tree-planting ceremony on the outskirts of the capital, Niamey. (picture: Sunday Alamba/AP)

The country’s leader General Salou Djibo dedicated the celebration of independence from France to the "struggle against food insecurity by sustainable land management." Djibo who claimed power in a coup earlier this year, said in a broadcast on Monday he wanted an overhaul of farming to prevent a repeat of the crisis in future harvests. “Our goal should be radically to transform the system of agricultural production to definitively bring Niger out of the disastrous consequences of unreliable climate change and the cycle of famine," he said.

Aid groups have been generally supportive of Djibo even if he hasn’t let the famine get in the way of dealing with his political enemies. Last week Niger police arrested the ex-prime minister and three other former senior officials on charges of embezzling public funds. The arrests were part of a promise Djibo made to investigate corruption during the ten year reign of former president Mamadou Tandja who he toppled in February. Last month his anti-corruption commission published 200 names they accused of embezzlement. Ex-prime minister Oumarou has been called to return $500,000.

Djibo has been less keen to dismantle some of Tandja’s even bigger earners. In 2008 the then president gave his approval for a $5 billion production-sharing agreement for the Agadem oil block with Chinese state-owned CNPC in 2008. Human rights groups complained the agreement lacked transparency and should be investigated. But this week Djibo approved the deal. "The production-sharing agreement with CNPC allows us, if we manage it well, to guarantee better returns for our country," he said. The Agadem oil block has estimated reserves of 325 million barrels and should come online in three years. Niger is also set to become the world’s second largest uranium producer when French company Areva's billion-dollar Imouraren mine starts production.

This abundant mineral wealth means little to the lives of millions destroyed by lack of food. Niger lies at the bottom of the UN Human Development Index so even in a year of good harvests the region is on the edge of a humanitarian crisis. Last year’s harvest was not good. Niger is at the centre of a Sahel famine that has hit Burkina Faso, Cameroon, Chad and Mali, after insufficient rains left poor crops and a desperate shortage of cattle feed. The fodder shortfalls and lack of water are affecting livestock herds with increasing cases of animal mortality and pastoralists having to sell their cattle at very low prices. The situation is becoming critical in all regions and emergency destocking measures are recommended by humanitarian partners.

Children are worst affected by the crisis. The results of the UN 2010 nutrition survey published on 24 June show the magnitude of the nutritional crisis among children. The Nutrition Survey shows 17 percent of children aged 6 months to 5 years are affected, increasing by 5 percent in a year. The UN’s biggest priorities in Niger are food security (including assistance to pastoralists) and nutrition (including water, sanitation and health activities).

The UN World Food Program is rolling out a large-scale feeding operation to provide foods fortified with vitamins and nutrients for all children under two and their families in the worst-affected parts of the country. They are also providing medical treatment for those who succumb to malnourishment, nursing mothers in particular. Longer term, the communities need build up their livelihoods to become more drought resilient. “Higher agricultural output and lower population growth would make these crises less likely,” the WFP said. “That means improving living conditions in rural areas and providing farmers with access to water, credit, education and healthcare.”

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