Drought-hit Niger faces 'worst hunger crisis in living memory'

NIGER is facing the worst hunger crisis in its history, with almost half the country's population in desperate need of food and up to one in six children suffering from acute malnutrition, aid officials said yesterday.

Malek Triki, West Africa spokesman for the United Nations' World Food Programme, said villagers in Niger are describing the situation as worse than in 2005, when aid organisations treated tens of thousands of children for malnutrition, and worse even than 1973, when thousands died.

"What they are saying is that this is the worst crisis in living memory," Triki said.

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National surveys conducted in May and June in the drought-stricken country on the southern fringe of the Sahara desert indicate that 16.7 per cent of children under the age of five are acutely malnourished.

That figure is well above the 15 per cent threshold used by the UN to declare an emergency, according to the WFP.

The WFP estimates that 7.3 million people - almost half the country's population - are in desperate need of food. In rural areas like Diffa, Triki said he spoke to numerous people who eat at most once a day.

He said: "A woman I spoke to basically said, 'We're in a constant state of fasting. If we eat lunch, we cannot eat dinner. If we eat dinner, we cannot eat lunch.' "

It's unclear if people have begun to die of starvation, he said, and mortality figures are not available from either Niger's government or the UN.

Aid workers, however, say the high rate of malnutrition is obvious at the food distribution points. Many of the children "look stunted", said Triki.

Niger's government, currently run by a military council after a February coup ousted President Mamadou Tandja, had said it would provide more than 21,000 tons of food. In 2005, Tandja played down the food crisis, dismissing it as "false propaganda" used by the UN aid agencies and opposition parties for political and economic gain.

Niger has historically been susceptible to famine because the country is mostly not irrigated. The success of its agriculture is heavily dependent on rain and when the rains fail, so do the country's crops.