Food-for-work takes the strain out of Niger's lean season

The scorched landscape of Niger hides a secret. Crescent-shaped grooves etched into the earth by workers collect vital water for a plentiful harvest. Marcus Prior looks at how WFP's Food for Work programme provides a buffer for Nigeriens waiting for their crops to grow.

Nigeriens take to the fields to dig crescent-shaped irrigation ditches and earn WFP food that will help them survive until harvest time. Marcus Prior reports on how people in Niger are taking a firm stand against drought.

Niger before the rains is a pitiless landscape – parched, cracked, and low on promise of any riches to come.

Winds blowing off the Sahara spray dust into every corner, every eye, every crease of clothing.

I’ve even seen places being cultivated now where we never thought that cultivation would be possible

Ismael Ibrahim, President of the village food-for-work committee

If you scoured the planet for a place where food was scarce, you might just end your search in Niger.

But all is not necessarily as it seems.

Approaching the village of Karadji-Nord in the province of Tahoua, the monotone rise and fall is broken by a surreal collection of semicircular trenches dug into the unforgiving ground.

Scars of hope

The crescent depressions run to the horizon, scarring the land with hope.

Hope because they are ‘half moons’, designed to assist in the capture and retention of water and therefore give the local villagers greater certainty that their harvest will be plentiful. In a land without irrigation, this is as good as it gets.

Low technology with a high impact.

The project is a partnership between the World Food Programme and the Government of Niger’s Projet Mobilisation des Eaux – the Projet provide the technical expertise, WFP the food rations handed out in return for a day in the fields.

It is one of several in the area.

Investing in the future

“The food is not the only reason we are happy to do this work,” explains 35 year-old Ismael Ibrahim, President of the village food-for-work committee.

“We also do it because we know what it means for our future. With this kind of improvement to our land, we will be able to produce much more food every year and look after our interests better.

“I’ve even seen places being cultivated now where we never thought that cultivation would be possible.”

Food rather than cash

Almost in unison the villagers chorus their preference for food over cash for their work, saying cash would only mean they would have to travel the 13 kilometres to the nearest market in order to buy food.

This way the food is delivered to their doorstep – it has greater value than money in a food-scarce environment where prices are unpredictable.

As a buffer to their own post-harvest stocks, the WFP rations are vital to the overall annual food security of the villagers.

The project, now in its third year, has also persuaded many men against leaving in search of work in neighbouring countries, guaranteeing a pool of able-bodied labour to work the fields.

Abandoned women

In less fortunate areas, women and children are often left to do the hard work, resulting in a reduced harvest.

Never was this more important than during the crisis of 2005.

“Last year, this village would have been empty without the food for work project,” Ismael says categorically, and the others gathered around nod in affirmation.

This year, after a good harvest, they believe will be “more or less acceptable”.

Water retention vital

Following last year’s first harvest from the half-moon fields, Ismael reckoned he had seen a 20 percent increase in crop yield.

However, the rains in 2005 were excellent – the real proof of their value will come in a year of relatively poor rains, when water retention becomes absolutely vital.

Food-for-work projects such as the one at Karadji-Nord are one way WFP is working together with the government of Niger and other organisations to equip rural communities to deal with the ravages of another ‘lean season’ – the mid-year months prior to the harvest.

Lean season means crisis

Every year, the lean season is experienced as a crisis by hundreds of thousands of Nigeriens.

For too long, this annual battle against deprivation has been accepted as ‘normal’ and ‘acceptable’.

The 2005 crisis forced the international community to see it for what it is – abnormal and completely unacceptable.

Admissions of young children to nutrition centres across the affected zones of Niger are already starting to pick up, well ahead of the traditional lean season months of June, July and August.

The main centre in Maradi is receiving over 1,000 new admissions for moderate and severe malnutrition every week.

Stocking up

Many people have already run out of supplies stocked from the last harvest, needing instead to find some way of buying food, while prices on the markets remain above the average for the past five years.

To make matters worse, many of the poorest are heavily indebted and have been forced to sell off a significant part of their harvest to even the books – just a little.

Reports of families skipping meals and scavenging for wild foods such as leaves and berries, a traditional way of coping with food shortages in Niger, are already common.

"Cycle of desperation"

In short, the 2005 crisis has left a huge scar across Niger, a scar that has not yet healed.

Recovery will require not only an urgent and timely response in the months ahead, but also a focused effort of international cooperation over the next decade to help the country out of its cycle of desperation.

Food is part of the solution to Niger’s problems, but only a part.

Water, health, education are just three more crucial elements of what needs to be a comprehensive, concerted multi-sectorial attack on the poverty of the world’s poorest country.

Only then will we be able to talk of a normal and acceptable situation in Niger.