Hunger and disease is part of the daily life for the 1,500 people in Zermo, a small village in eastern Niger, even when nature is kind to them.
Some 1,000 km from the dusty capital, Niamey, the settlement of mud huts sits on a small hill in a sea of sand, where subsistence farmers eke out a meagre existence growing sorghum and millet and rearing a few cattle and goats.
Haoua Maman sits on the floor in front of her hut with 15-month-old Ibrahim in her arms. His limbs are just skin and bone and he is almost too weak to breathe. Her breasts stopped giving milk when food in the village ran out.
"I went to the local health centre in Ollelewa with Ibrahim to get help," Haoua explained, "but there they asked for 700 CFA (US $1.4) for a consultation, money I did not have.”
She made the 25 km journey back to Zermo on foot, knowing that she and Ibrahim faced another day with an empty stomach. "What can we do? The child will die, if God wants it.”
Zermo is one of the most affected villages in Zinder, which along with five other regions in the south have borne the brunt of the food crisis.
Last year's drought and a locust invasion tipped the fragile balance between survival and death, as livestock perished and the sorghum fields were consumed by locust swarms.
UN Emergency Relief Coordinator Jan Egeland warned this week that immediate aid is needed to keep 2.5 million people alive in Niger. Nearly a third of the population is threatened by hunger, "and about 800,000 children younger than five have empty bellies".
Malnutrition is an endemic problem in Niger. While aid workers stress this year’s crisis in the south is not a famine, it has offered a heart-wrenching glimpse into the extent of the deep-seated poverty of the country’s 12 million people.
"The real problem of the people here is poverty," said Moussa Ganaon, the mayor of Ollelewa county. "The people here have absolutely no money to buy food or medicines for their children, they depend on help from relatives and friends who themselves don’t have enough".
Moussa tried to comfort a group of about 20 women, almost all of them with malnourished children in their arms, some of them severely wasted. But aside from pity, the official had nothing else to offer. "We cannot afford to give services and medicines for free, our town has no income," he said.
A lack of access to clean water compounds the problem for the very young. Diarrhoea, combined with a lack of food, means that children waste away, aid workers say.
"There is a structural problem of malnutrition in Niger. Even during a good harvest we face this kind of malnutrition among children,” said the UN Children’s Fund Representative, Adjibade Aboudou Karimou.
A key element, she said, was that traditionally women have little power and husbands determine how income is spent. Women “don’t get enough access to food and they cannot take care enough of their children as a consequence.”
The path out of Niger’s food insecurity was through the empowerment of women, she stressed, starting with schooling. Lack of female education is partly responsible for the high fertility rate: the average woman in Niger gives birth to 8.4 children.
Lack of Development Aid
Although Niger is huge, it cannot feed its people because of an archaic system of food production that is almost totally dependent on rain fed agriculture in the arid Sahel.
"We don’t really understand in this country why, despite the fact that it is a democratic country, a solid state and very stable, does not receive the attention and aid it needs from the international community to put its people on a solid path towards development," UN Resident Representative Michele Falavigna told IRIN.
Peter Bieler, an agronomist from the aid agency Swiss Cooperation, which runs development projects in the country, says Niger needs to prioritise agriculture.
"Niger needs professional farmers, not unemployed people in the
countryside that have nothing else to do. It needs an agricultural policy that strengthens the agricultural system."
Just to keep pace with the population growth rate, Niger needs to construct 2,000 new wells each year, Bieler noted.
In the small market of Ollelewa town, a woman sitting behind a mound of herbs for sale held a severely malnourished child to her breast. Traders were offering chillies, salt and medicines, but almost no food.
What little food was available was selling at three times the normal price, way beyond the reach of most of the villagers. Their livestock, which they usually exchange for food, are emaciated, and have plummeted in value.
But Niger’s food crisis is a localised problem. In the major towns the markets are full, with trucks laden with cereals plying the roads.
According to Bieler, shrewd businessmen have been profiting from the crisis: "You can always buy 10 or 20 tons of cereals. But traders intentionally give out only small quantities in order to keep prices high. There is a lot of business going on here. Some traders bought dried meat from desperate livestock owners and sold it for 20 times more in Nigeria."
Late Reaction Costly
Last year's national cereal production was only 11 percent down on the five year average, which could have been covered by a 3 percent increase in Niger's normal cereal imports, according to the US-funded Famine Early Warning Systems Network.
In January the government and aid partners agreed to a preventative strategy based on targeted distributions and subsidised food and fodder to prop-up livelihoods. However, the 33,000 metric tons of cereals that suppliers in the region had been contracted to provide did not arrive.
Agricultural analysts told IRIN that fear of food shortages in Niger's neighbours - northern Nigeria, Mali and Burkina Faso - was the likely reason.
The inability of the regional market to step in and cover Niger's food deficit, and the late response by the donors to UN funding appeals first made nine months ago, toppled Niger into an emergency.
"If you can't implement a preventative strategy you have to revise your strategy, you have to move to a saving lives operation," said World Food Programme (WFP) Country Director Gian Carlo Cirri.
In May the UN appealed for $16 million for Niger; last week WFP upped its figure to $56 million to feed the 2.5 million most in need.
"The operation could have been at least five times cheaper.
Unfortunately it is difficult to sell crises prevention - people first have to see the starving children,” said WFP spokesperson in Niamey, Stephanie Savariou.
"The international community should be ashamed of itself," said David Andrews, a former Irish foreign minister and president of the Irish Red Cross in the southern town of Tauoa, where the NGO Concern was handing out supplementary food to more than 900 mothers and their malnourished children.
Andrews called for an international conference on Niger in order to tackle the long-term development problems of the country.
But even if the food aid shipments now underway reach Zermo, the
villagers are unlikely to escape the cycle of poverty and starvation.
With the early start to the rains this season, the first signs of the new crop of sorghum and millet are beginning to appear. But many farmers were unable to sow, because desperate, they had eaten all their seeds.
"Even if the rains are good this year the harvest will not be enough," said one elder.
While the current crisis may be easing as the humanitarian operation kicks into gear, the next seems already in the making.