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Over one million receiving food rations, immediate and long-term challenges loom

[Niger] Mother with her malnourished child in MSF therapeutic feeding centre in Zinder town, Zinder district, Niger. July 2005.
Une mère et son enfant malnutri venus chercher de l'aide dans un centre de nutrition de MSF (IRIN)

The television cameras all but gone, aid agencies in Niger continue to tackle life-and-death needs and seek lasting solutions to a food crisis that aid workers say was already well in swing when the world rushed in to help.

The UN World Food Programme (WFP) – which estimates its food aid has now reached 1.2 million people – has started evaluations across the country to get a fresh reading of the food security situation, agency officials said.

While donor response to the Niger crisis was late, a spurt of contributions in July and early August allowed WFP to tackle a first round of emergency food distributions, with a targeted 1.8 million people deemed the most at-risk, a WFP official said.

One international aid group, however, says in some regions the number of acutely malnourished children is steady or even rising.

Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF) this week reiterated its worry that free food is not getting to people who need it most urgently.

In a 13 September press release MSF said a recent survey shows continued alarming rates of severe malnutrition among children in Zinder, southern Niger.

MSF, which first raised its concerns about the UN’s food aid strategy in Niger last month, is worried that in many areas moderately malnourished children will degrade to a state of severe malnourishment, which is life threatening, if their families do not receive free food rations.

While MSF has not specified villages it says need food aid but are not receiving it, the agency has pointed to high rates of severe malnutrition among children in Zinder and Maradi, some 250 kilometres to the west.

“The rate of admissions [of severely malnourished children] to our centres is not diminishing,” Aymeric Peguillan, head of communications for MSF-Suisse, said by phone from Geneva on Wednesday. “Whatever is being done, it’s not being done fast enough...[MSF] can keep on saving lives but if there is not access to food for the people the problem will continue.”

MSF has received 30,000 children to its centres since January 2005. If the current rate continues, the group expects that number to reach 50,000 by the end of the year, Peguillan said.

“It’s enormous. And we’re not even talking about the moderately malnourished…These are the children who are really fighting for their lives.”

While there is food in the market, MSF says, people in some parts of Zinder, Maradi and other hard-hit areas cannot afford to buy it, he said.

In its latest report, based on August data, the Niger government’s food crisis early warning office said the food situation remains “difficult” – with many zones still deemed “extremely critical.”

The report noted that in zones hardest hit by food shortages, cereal prices are still high, food banks do not yet exist in many parts, and household incomes have dropped.

The report notes that the promising harvests in almost all regions give reason to hope for improvement. The office is expected to release new statistics in the coming days.

The US-funded Famine Early Warning System (FEWS) said in a 1 September statement, “Cereal harvest prospects and pasture conditions continue to be excellent in most of Niger.”

WFP is conducting rolling evaluations to determine whether any Nigeriens in critical need are not being covered by the current distribution plan, Marcus Prior, public information officer for West Africa, said on Wednesday.

“WFP is doing ongoing rapid needs assessments in the affected areas. Wherever we are finding needs that fall outside of the current distribution plan we’re doing everything we can to make sure to get those people the assistance they need.”

While funding has been adequate for its initial distribution round, it is vital that resources continue to flow in, said Prior.

As of 13 September WFP had received US $33.5 million toward its appeal of US $57.6 million for the Niger operation.

“It’s quite clear that there will be significant needs beyond the harvest,” he said. “We urgently need further contributions to ensure that what we do does not have just a short-term impact but an impact through the rest of the year, and to ensure this does not happen again.”

One aid worker who has been in Niger for over a year said no one should anticipate an overnight remedy to such a complex problem.

“The situation is alarming, but I don’t think people should expect a quick fix,” Nigel Tricks, Niger country director for Concern Worldwide, said from the capital, Niamey.

Concern is assisting moderately and severely malnourished children in the Tahoua region.

“The crisis was already in full swing when the international community started to respond; now we’re that much further into the hungry season.” Aid groups have done their best to catch as many malnourished children as possible before they reach a critical state, he added.

“There’s still a tremendous amount of work to be done. Niger still needs an awful lot of support. This is not a problem that’s going to go away when the TV cameras leave and some money starts coming in.”

This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information: https://shop.un.org/rights-permissions

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