Hunger is an ever-present problem in extremely poor countries like Niger, but a hard drought last year has made a bad situation immeasurably worse. WFP’s Director for West Africa, Thomas Yanga, explains why so many people in Niger are going hungry and what’s being done to help them.
What is the main cause of hunger in Niger this year?
Most people in Niger rely on rain-fed agriculture or herding for food. But the rains last year were too little and too late, which caused massive crop failures and dried up much of the grazing land. At the same time, high food prices from the year before have never quite come down, meaning that people who didn’t grow enough food this year can’t afford to buy more.
Thomas Yanga is WFP's regional director for West Africa. Niger is currently the biggest operation in his region.
The expanded Niger operation is being built around the need to reach malnourished under twos in the areas worst hit by drought.
Niger is in an arid part of the world. Don't people have traditional methods of coping with drought?
Yes, they do. Herders migrate and farmers have adapted techniques to handle the dry climate. But they can only cope with so much. The crop failures last year were truly exceptional. Very early on, we saw massive migration to the cities and even neighbouring countries. Traditional coping has reached its limits.
What is the impact of this drought on malnutrition among children?
We know from the government’s June nutrition survey and reports from local health centres that there has been an alarming increase in child malnutrition. Our fear is that this will have a serious impact on levels of child mortality.
What are the long-term consequences of children going for long periods without enough food?
Children who are deprived of adequate nutrition have an increased risk of illness and death, and can suffer irreversible damage to their development. In the short-term we expect to see rising levels of child mortality and in the long-term, many more children who will not grow or develop mentally as they might have otherwise.
What is WFP doing to help malnourished children?
WFP is rolling out a large-scale feeding operation to provide foods fortified with vitamins and nutrients for all children under two suffering from malnutrition in the worst-affected parts of the country. We’ll of course also be providing food assistance to the rest of the family to make sure there is enough for everyone. We’ll also be providing medical treatment for those who succumb to malnourishment, nursing mothers in particular.
What can be done to help countries like Niger to prepare for future droughts?
It’s crucial to help communities build up their livelihoods so that they’ll be more resilient to droughts in the future. We can also help to build “safety nets” that protect people from going hungry when harvests fail or prices rise unexpectedly. Long-term, higher agricultural output and lower population growth would make these crises less likely. But that means improving living conditions in rural areas and providing farmers with access to water, credit, education and healthcare.