- Severe food crisis following poor harvests caused by inadequate rainfall last year, has forced UN aid agencies and their partners in Niger to appeal for an additional US$ 132 million to fund humanitarian programmes in the West African country.
Food shortages and malnutrition in Niger have affected an estimated 4.7 million people, the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) has reported in a revised emergency humanitarian action plan prepared to support the government's efforts to quickly mobilise additional funds.
The agency said a total of US$ 190.7 million is required, but US$ 57.8 million of that amount is already available, leaving a deficit of US$ 132.9 million. It however also said requirements could increase when the findings of a comprehensive humanitarian survey scheduled for later this month are released.
According to OCHA, in line with the national authorities' priorities, the humanitarian country team in Niger has prioritised food security and nutritional aid, and support in health, water, sanitation, hygiene and logistics.
Inadequate or poor distribution of rainfall has caused large deficits in Niger's agricultural and fodder production. Poor harvests have created a cereals deficit of more than 410,000 metric tonnes, while fodder shortfalls have been estimated at more than 16 million tonnes or 67 percent of the national livestock needs. Many water sources have also dried up, adding to the hardship pastoralists are facing.
UN Humanitarian Coordinator Khardiata Lo N'diaye told a news conference in New York last week that the new national authorities in Niger, which came to power on 18 February, have launched an appeal seeking international assistance.
Niger underwent a coup last month, when the Supreme Council for the Restoration of Democracy (CSRD) seized control of the government during a gun battle in the capital, Niamey.
UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon condemned the coup and stressed that the UN stands ready to support initiatives aimed at peacefully resolving Niger's political and constitutional crisis.
When asked about the coup, Ms Lo N'diaye acknowledged that a return to a democratic institution was a key priority in the country, but the need facing the population was also a priority.
"The main focus for the UN is to save lives in Niger ... this support would go directly to the population and allow them to participate fully in the democratization process," she said.
The UN World Food Programme (WFP) has already more than doubled its food aid to Niger, Executive Director Josette Sheeran said last month, adding that the food situation in the country was becoming a "major humanitarian challenge."
Meanwhile, the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) is also launching extensive assistance programmes for more than 100,000 people affected by adverse weather conditions and violence in northern Niger and Mali. The ICRC said these are among millions of people, mainly farmers and herders, hit hard by poor rains and economic hardship. Continuing communal violence in some areas has added to the strain.
The committee said the situation is particularly dire in the Ansongo and Menaka areas of northern Mali, and in north-western Niger, especially in the Ouallam and Fillingué departments. In northern Mali, government statistics indicated that more than a quarter of a million people in Gao and Kidal are experiencing food insecurity. In Niger, the government estimates that over half of the entire country's population is suffering from moderate to severe food insecurity – about eight million people in all.
"Rainfall in 2009 was irregular and approximately 70 percent below the annual average. Because of the weather conditions and the difficulty of moving about amid the violence, the harvest was poor and people have been running out of food, while cattle don't have enough pasture," said Nicolai Panke, who heads the ICRC's operations in Mali and Niger. He added that sporadic communal violence had forced thousands of people in some areas to leave their homes and join the ranks of the internally displaced.
Although fighting between government forces and armed opposition groups in northern Niger and Mali subsided last year, areas such as Ansongo in Mali and Tillabéry in Niger experienced an upturn in communal violence, forcing thousands of people to temporarily leave their homes. "We will not only help internally displaced people who lost all their belongings but also vulnerable residents and returnees, since they too have been hard hit by the crisis," said Mr Panke.
The ICRC is one of only a very few international humanitarian organisations operating in northern Niger and Mali, working closely with the Red Cross societies of both countries and coordinates its activities with the authorities dealing with the food crisis.
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