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Low rains, high risks

[Niger] Almost 40 percent of the animal fodder in Niger was reduced to dust after one of the worst droughts in recent years was followed by an invasion of hungry locusts. Now the animals are dying.
Niger's livestock lie dead, rotting in the sun (WFP)

Irregular and below-average rains in parts of northeastern Nigeria and eastern Niger have shortened the growing season for many farmers, sparking malnutrition and food insecurity concerns among aid groups and analysts.

In parts of the eastern Sahel, encompassing western Chad, northern Nigeria and southern Niger, the rains came late - in early July - picked up in August, and slowed down in September. Overall they were below-normal when compared to a 1998-2004 average, according to Nick Novella, Africa forecaster at the US climate prediction centre NOAA.

“Rainfall needs to be both sufficient and well-timed in the Sahel to enable some crops the four months they require to mature,” World Food Programme’s West Africa assessment officer, Jean-Martin Bauer, told IRIN.

Poor rainfall and early sowing failures were experienced in Tillabéri, Maradi, Zinder and Diffa in Niger, and pockets of 11 northern Nigerian states, according to regional weather forecasters and government sources.

But WFP’s Bauer told IRIN: “It is too early to tell the magnitude of the situation.” WFP, the US Agency for International Development’s Famine Early Warning System (FEWS NET), agriculture ministries and NGO representatives are assessing the crop and pasture situations in Chad, Burkina Faso, Nigeria and Niger this week and next, said Bauer.

Malnutrition concern

With already high rates of chronic malnutrition and child mortality in both countries, “any production deficits - even minor ones - can impact an already very fragile nutritional situation,” said FEWS NET programme manager John Scicchitano, basing his analysis on FEWS NET reports.

Diffa has Niger’s highest rate of acute malnutrition at 17 percent, according to the most recent government assessment; while UNICEF estimates 38 percent of under-fives in Nigeria suffer from chronic malnutrition.

'Never again' Niger 2005
 Crisis continues
 Teetering on famine
 Famine looms
 Marching against locusts, drought
 Wild leaves supplant missing food

Scicchitano added that malaria, which continues to be a danger at the end of the rainy season, puts children at greater risk of malnutrition, according to the World Health Organization.

Nutrition problems could start to emerge this year as a result.


While harvests in Nigeria and Niger could be normal in some places, there are indications that some farmers will harvest nothing, Scicchitano reported.

Some zones in Niger’s far-east Diffa Region had no rainfall for 60 or more days, killing off rain-fed crops, said Mainema Mallam Mamadou of the local NGO Food Security and Local Economic Development (SADEL).

In Zinder, southern Niger, Secretary-General of the Federation of Agriculture Input Vendors Karimo Hamni told IRIN: “Preliminary harvest figures do not give us much hope… Our cash crops of beans and peanuts did poorly, which hits more than our stomachs. We are looking at cutting household expenses.”

He estimated almost 60 percent of the 57 villages his federation services, which include 4,300 growers, face a crop deficit this year.

Ibrahim Nomau, a farmer from Dundubus village in Nigeria’s Jigawa State, told IRIN: “This year’s harvest has been good for early planters and for farmers who used improved seed varieties with shorter maturity periods… but farmers who used low-yield traditional seeds with longer maturity periods are in for a loss.”

Sorghum and rice are of particular concern in the region, he added.


Preliminary findings indicate agro-pastoral zones in Niger and northern Nigeria have been particularly hard hit by the insufficient rains, with pasture for livestock expected to be diminished, according to FEWS NET.  

This could have a serious impact on pastoralists who have already seen their grazing land reduced over recent years, and their purchasing power eroded by persistently high staple food prices, the organization said. Pastoralists in Niger noted livestock weight loss and low milk production in the early part of the rainy season.


Food shortages are not simply a matter of rainfall, noted the Center for Global Development (CGD) in its “How Can We Avoid Another Food Crisis in Niger?” September 2008 report. “While droughts are often associated with production shocks in Niger, the relationship between drought and food crises is not well-understood… Local grain markets are highly responsive to national and sub-regional production and price shocks.”

It is too early to tell how a below-average harvest would affect Nigeria and Niger’s food markets, according to analysts. A FEWS NET October 2009 report LINK predicted the harvest in the eastern Sahel could lead to a decline in prices of some crops, but prices are still expected to stay at above-average levels into 2010.

Prices of millet, sorghum, beans and rice in Niger had fallen by 6 percent between mid-September and early October, according to the government.

The depreciation of Nigeria’s naira currency has made it unattractive for Niger’s producers to sell, which could curtail the high grain sales from Niger to Nigeria that deepened the 2005 crisis, said one analyst.

Recurrent drought and West Africa’s most devastating locust invasion in 15 years left millions in Niger at risk of hunger in 2005. (See read more box)

Food prices remained high throughout 2008 and the first half of 2009 as food and livestock producers, traders and governments strived to replenish stocks of cereals, cowpeas and oilseed that a poor 2007 harvest had depleted, said the October 2009 FEWS NET report.

In 2008 Niger reported a 38 percent increase in cereal production over 2007 but despite this, one million people faced food shortages going into the 2009 harvest period - more than 200,000 of them facing severe insecurity - based on a March 2009 government plan.

National cereal reserves were low as of early October, at just 2 percent of target levels in Nigeria - down by 18 percent since March - and 44 percent in Niger, according to FEWS NET.


Some interventions have helped. The Niger government sold sorghum and cereals at below-market prices in the west of Niger in Tillabéri and Tera , during the rainy season, benefiting buyers, said FEWS NET.

In Niger on 15 October, the government convened food security agencies to “harmonize harvest figures”, pledging to take “appropriate” measures following the analysis.

Nigeria’s Emergency Management Agency (NEMA) has warned 11 northern states to start contingency stockpiling and planning responses with partners, NEMA head Mohammed Audu-bida told IRIN.

In addition to boosting public grain stocks and preparing for food insecurity, responding to perennially high levels of malnutrition should be an equally high priority for policy-makers, said Scicchitano.


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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