Millions at risk of food shortages. Acutely malnourished infants with scarcely enough energy to move. Pastoralists with no means to keep the animals that are their economic lifeblood alive.
Sounds familiar right? Only it’s not the same old story. For this is not the Horn of Africa food crisis currently afflicting Somalia and its neighbours. Instead, gradually and quietly unfolding on the other side of the continent, is a scenario with some of the same hallmarks.
Niger rarely makes the news, in Anglophone media at least. Unless that is there's a relative of Gaddafi in town. Ranked 186th out of 187 countries in the human development index, this forgotten corner of the world has been facing drought and the spectre of famine for years on end yet seems unable to garner those precious column inches that would help mobilise wider international action.
Famine fatigue. Two words that should never go together but then there’s only so much misery and suffering that most of us can take. But try telling that to the people of Niger, or Mauritania, or to any of the other countries in the Sahel whose populations are heading for a struggle to feed their families and wondering why them, why again.
A full-blown famine is not yet upon us. Semantically speaking a famine, according to the UN, is where 20 per cent of the population has fewer than 2100 kilocalories of food available per day; where acute malnutrition rates exceed 30 per cent; and where two deaths per day in every 10,000 people - or four deaths per day in every 10,000 children - are being caused by lack of food. Sitting in the Plan office in Niamey though, I sometimes have to ask myself if linguistic nuances aren’t getting in the way of an urgent imperative to save lives.
There are currently over 280,000 children undergoing treatment in Niger for severe malnourishment; 20% will probably die despite medical intervention. As many as six million people in some 7000 villages are thought likely to be at risk of food insecurity. But will this be enough to make the world’s media sit up and take notice of what is technically not a famine? Will we be able to persuade donors who have already been extremely generous to aid agencies working in the Horn of Africa that the Sahel too is in need of some serious TLC this year?
And maybe part of the problem, the root of the ennui if you like, is that the issue here is almost cyclical. Every two or so years drought and failed harvests combine to rear their ugly head. Only this year we are dealing with a terrible multi-headed hydra where communities are now so far down on their luck because they’ve had no time to recover from the hard-hitting crisis of 2010 that they have lost their coping strategies. The family gold has been sold. Precious livestock bartered at market for a price way below market value. Then there’s the added impact of some 100,000 migrant workers returned from Libya in the wake of the uprising leading to more mouths to feed and the loss of crucial remittances.
The good news is that governments in the region and humanitarian agencies are pulling together, taking on board some of the lessons learned from earlier crises in a bid for greater coordination ahead of the long hard hungry months ahead. Long-term solutions are being explored - in a recent publication Escaping the Hunger Cycle: Pathways to Resilience in the Sahel produced by agencies working in the region including Plan International, the conclusion was drawn that more effective early warning indicators and rapid response mechanisms are required in order to prevent the immense damage to livelihoods and the loss of assets by vulnerable households that a serious food crisis causes.
The fact remains though that we need to talk about famine. Perhaps not in the technical UN-defined sense of the word. But in the dictionary sense of the word: extreme and general scarcity of food, as in a country or a large geographical area. With so many lives potentially at stake, now is not the time to dodge the issue.