Niger: What price human dignity?

Hani Issa wants to pack up and leave for good: with the wild leaves she feeds her family Photo: Jaspreet Kindra/IRIN

Small farmers in Oullam District in Niger’s western region of Tillaberi, faced with their third drought in seven years, are being forced to consider bundling up their few possessions and leaving for good the villages they have lived in all their lives.

To better understand what is happening, IRIN visited two villages in Oullam District which has the highest proportion of its population classified as severely food-insecure, according to a multi-agency survey in December 2011.

In Talkadabey, (“poor person’s home” in the local D’jerma language), the Oullam local authorities say 75 percent of residents do not have enough to eat; and in Banemate (“health or prosperity must come”) the figure is 90 percent.

Grandmother Hani Issa was born and brought up in Talkadabey, where the residents are mainly D’jerma and small farmers. Poor rains followed by an attack by caterpillars in September 2011 had snuffed out any hope of a decent harvest. The men in Issa’s home left the village four months ago in search of work, leaving Issa to look after seven grandchildren.

“I have to find food for the children for another four months [until the next rains]… I don’t think I can go on like this. I will have to pack up, take the children and leave,” she told IRIN.

Ousseini Idrissa, an official in charge of Oullam town and nearby villages, said: “There are hundreds of people leaving,” adding that everyone had been aware that villages in Oullam would run out of food soon.

Yacouba Mainassara, the village chief, said they had fared better during the last drought in 2010, when the government had provided wages for short-term environmental services jobs.

Dabey reckoned agriculture in Niger missed military ruler Seyni Kountché who died in 1987. Kountché had invested heavily in agriculture and health services thanks to the discovery of uranium at a time when global prices were high. But when the uranium boom ended in the early 1980s, Niger’s ability to fund development slumped.

“We need an irrigation system, good seeds and cheap fertilizer and then we can have enough to feed ourselves,” said Dabey. Most of the residents get by on remittances from family members who have migrated to neighbouring countries. According to the World Bank, in 2010, 2.4 percent of Niger’s population had migrated and sent US$70 million home that year.

When IRIN visited Banemate village in Dinghazi Commune, the children seemed reserved; some were exhibiting signs of malnutrition – bloated bellies, listless eyes and discoloured hair.

There was plenty of millet and sorghum available in the local market in Dinghazi, but affordable only for those who had remittances to fall back on.

Locals explained that some people migrate seasonally – between planting and harvests. Droughts and a rapidly growing population have forced many to leave their homes for neighbouring countries to support their families. “It is part of our way of life now,” explained the local official. But this year there have been families who have left seemingly for good, he added.

Underfunded appeal

Despite early signs in 2011 that Niger – and particularly people in Tillaberi, Diffa and Agadez regions – were going to need help, as of 15 April only 41 percent of the more than US$229 million appeal for assistance had been covered. Aid insiders say the appeal is now being revised upwards to more than $400 million.

Donors and aid agencies have yet to figure out how to respond between the time an early warning is sounded and when a crisis requires an emergency response, explained Peter Gubbels, who authored the multi-agency 2010 study Escaping the Hunger Cycle: Pathways to Resilience in the Sahel.

Early response, such as cash transfers or fodder for livestock, can help to stop people’s livelihoods from collapsing and prevent people from fleeing.

Nigeriens nourish Nigeriens (3N)

People in Niger, the world’s second least developed country, have been hit by a series of shocks: regular droughts; four coups since independence in 1958; Tuareg rebellions; the Libyan crisis which affected remittances; and fluctuations in the price of the main export, uranium.

In 50 years since independence, Niger has been in a food deficit situation for half of them, says the 3N programme (Nigeriens nourish Nigeriens), the new government framework to make Nigeriens food secure for good. At the moment, 60 percent of households can only cover their food needs for three months, says the government.

“Our vision is to help ourselves become food secure. We were inspired by the previous military government’s initiative [which set up the Higher Authority of Food Security in 2010 to develop a food strategy for the country],” said Barkire Gabdokoye, the government’s technical adviser on 3N.

The five cornerstones of the plan, he said, were: develop production (land, fisheries and livestock); build infrastructure; improve drought preparedness; focus on nutrition; and create an enabling environment including legislation to make it all possible. Details of the framework are still being worked out. But Gabdokoye shared some of its features.

3N has all the ingredients of a respectable sustainable food security strategy in a land under immense climatic and population pressure.

Eighty percent of the population lives on agriculture and only about 12 percent of the land is arable. Most famers depend on rain. 3N has highlighted the need to develop irrigation based on the Kandadji Dam (under construction) on the River Niger, which provides the country’s only reliable source of water.

The dam is expected not only to help reduce Niger’s dependence on energy imports from Nigeria but provide irrigation to 45,000 hectares by 2035. In the next five years, Gabdokoye said they hoped the dam would be able to irrigate 10,000 hectares of land.

3N focuses on sustainable agriculture practices such as harvesting water; use of conservation techniques to grow drought-resilient millet, sorghum and vegetables; and the provision of subsidized fertilizer, seeds and fodder for livestock.

A big impetus will be on getting pastoralists to diversify (“but we don’t want them to give up on pastoralism”).

“We want to build roads, improve infrastructure in the rural areas, make it mandatory for all villages to keep aside a communal reserve of cereals; have kitchen gardens,” said Gabdokoye. “We do not want people migrating to urban areas, which cannot sustain them. We are looking at value-added businesses such as cheese-making, handicrafts in the rural areas.”

Lack of funds

But 3N needs US$2 billion over five years. The government has put in $200 million. Niger’s main sources of revenue are foreign aid (which finances 40 percent of its budget), uranium exports and remittances.

In light of the European debt crisis the World Bank says it does not expect any substantial increase in funding for development in Niger. The reality on the ground is that it is hard to raise funds for long-term projects, said Oxfam’s Gaelle Bausson. “More funds are allocated to emergency response/relief programmes which are more visible, more in the media.”

Revenue from uranium is not adequate to fund 3N, said Gabdokoye. The outlook for uranium prices is uncertain in the wake of the nuclear accident in Japan in March 2011, with uranium prices down $20 a pound since 2011, said the World Bank, which also estimates the shortfall in remittances d ue to the Libya crisis to run at about $42 million.

In 2011 Niger also had to cancel a deal to sell a stake in the state-owned telecommunications company, Sonitel, to Libya, which has left a $60 million gap in its budget.

Climate change

Meanwhile, scientists’ climate warnings are getting louder. Since 1970, West Africa has experienced one of the most abrupt changes in climate since weather data began being recorded in 1896, say scientists Gil Mahe and Jean-Emmanuel Paturel in the 2009 peer-reviewed journal Comptes Rendus Geoscience.

Mahe and Paturel, who studied rainfall patterns in the Sahel 1896-2006, concluded that drought was still continuing in the region even if annual rainfall had increased since the very dry period in the 1970s and 1980s.

Source: IRIN News – 18 April 2012