- Torrential rains have washed away the mud-walled homes and livelihoods of 32,000 people in Niger this year, authorities said on Wednesday, nearly double the number previously known to be affected.
Seidou Bakary, coordinator of the government's food crisis response unit (CCA), told IRIN 32,742 people from 5,014 families have been affected in 49 towns and villages in the north, south and west of the vast, semi-arid country.
Bakary said continuing rains mean parts of the Maradi, Dosso and Tillaberi regions to the southeast and northeast of the capital Niamey are now under water. In the town Ouallam, 100km north of the capital, 3,284 people have also lost their homes.
Flooding this year has menaced six out of Niger's eight regions and the rains are still falling.
"We are coping with the situation, which is not exactly a crisis even if some families who have lost everything in the flooding have to face up to a very difficult environment", Bakary said. "It is more like a destruction of goods and more economic problems to come."
The remote desert town of Bilma in the Agadez region, 1,500km northeast of the capital Niamey, has borne the brunt of the rains. 3,450 people watched their homes and farmland destroyed by flooding, Bakary said. According to meteorologists, more rain has fallen in Bilma this year than in the last ten years combined.
"The whole city has been destroyed, it's a complete disaster but the immediate humanitarian needs are covered", Bakary said. "We now have to look at the water and sanitation problems and also at the schools reopening."
The government and its partners will send investigation teams to the Agadez region next week to assess the needs of the affected population and the structural damage, authorities said.
Besides destroying homes, the floods have also wiped out swathes of potato fields and vegetable gardens and devastated herds of livestock, raising the spectre of more hunger for a population that has long been vulnerable to food shortages.
Most of Niger's 12 million people survive on subsistence agriculture, yet each year more of the country's vast, dusty territory turns to desert. Three quarters of Niger's national territory is now classed as desert in a country that was once a net food exporter. As food yields have shrunk, population growth has continued booming.
The annual rainy season, which usually runs from June to October provides the only window for Nigerï¿½s villagers to grow enough food for the year ahead. As the floods have wiped out many crops before they could be harvested, this will have a negative impact on the precarious food balance, Bakary warned.
Niger's chronic economic, health and social problems mean it is already deemed the worst place to live in the world by the UNï¿½s human development index.
Thierry Clima, head of the medical NGO Doctors Without Borders/France (MSF) in Niger said Nigeriens "will certainly find it very hard to get over this".
Clima said MSF is monitoring for outbreaks of cholera and malaria, which usually occur during the rainy season. "There is some suspicion but it is too early to declare an outbreak", he said.
The flooding could also hold up the day the schools go back, aid workers said, as homeless people were living in the buildings and some of the schools have been destroyed or needed to be rehabilitated.
The CCA has asked the government for an extra CFA 400 million (US $773,000) to distribute food and buy tents and blankets. The structure has already received US$193,200 of this amount, Bakary said.
In addition, Libya has sent two freight planes loaded with tents, soap and blankets. Niger's government has delivered 190 tonnes of food rations to Bilma and Ingal, and the UN World Food Programme (WFP) has provided 30 tonnes of rations.
The UN's childrens agency UNICEF is distributing 10,000 nets to prevent a malaria outbreak, the agency said.
However, gaping holes in the response still remain.
In total, 616 tonnes of food have been distributed to the population affected by flooding, while 1,911 tonnes are needed, according to UNICEF.
Also, in the Zinder area, southeast of Niamey, the Swiss-branch of MSF has found 3,000 people sheltering with host families who needed to be relocated.
Still, according to Bakary additional outside assistance is not necessary. "A crisis committee has been set up, we are monitoring the situation along with our partners, everything is in place to answer the needs of the population", he explained.
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