A bad harvest season has punished the rural and urban poor across Niger, but food insecurity and livelihoods have been compounded by a critical lack of water in the worst-hit southern province of Zinder.
"The women with whom I've spoken in villages have said water is their first problem," UN Under-Secretary General John Holmes told journalists during a visit to Zinder in late April.
He found the stress on water striking, and this was backed by the similar experience of staff at humanitarian agencies; a food security survey by the government and humanitarian partners in April 2010 also found that almost half the country's households shared the same anxiety.
Niger is facing a severe food crisis resulting from erratic rainfall in 2009, which caused large cereal and pasture shortages. Some 7.1 million Nigeriens - or half of the population - are moderately or severely food-insecure, according to the most recent government study undertaken in April 2010.
Farmers in Dalli, a village 100km from the town of Zinder, suffered a total harvest failure in 2010 and now travel 20km to Tanout town to buy water. "Even if we have food, how can we prepare it without water?" Mariam, 55, a mother of 10, told Holmes.
Some water points in Zinder's most parched districts are drying up. In Koleram village, 15km from the town of Zinder, Oubeida Ichaou, 30, told IRIN the water level in the only well was falling fast and she sometimes had to wait several hours before she could draw water. "There are too many people around the well, too many cattle. You have to come very early in the morning, or even stay the night ... to draw water."
Zinder's Regional Director of Water Resources, Mamane Moussa, said engineers sometimes had to dig down several hundred metres before they found water, which was very costly.
Nutrition, health, education
Water points at health centres across Zinder, which are part of the malnutrition response, are also facing shortages, said Moustapha Niang, a Water, Hygiene and Sanitation specialist at the UN Children's Fund (UNICEF).
"The heavy use of water points ... in periods of great heat means these water points can no longer meet the drinking needs of people or their animals,” Niang told IRIN.
The number of malnourished children admitted to health centres has sharply risen in recent weeks as the lean season peaks, according to UNICEF.
In urban areas, 42 percent of people have access to drinking water, and seven percent to improved sanitation facilities; in rural areas 32 percent have drinking water and three percent have access to improved sanitation. UNICEF estimates that 80 percent of deaths in children younger than five are linked to lack of access to clean water and sanitation facilities.
Niang called on donors to "ensure water and sanitation activities are financed, for without this any malnutrition response will not be effective ... Clean drinking water and decent sanitation [is essential] to reduce the prevalence of diarrhoea, which can exacerbate the problem of severe malnutrition."
Need for investment
Desert covers three-quarters of Niger, yet it has valuable renewable water sources, including about 31 billion cubic metres of surface water, 2.5 billion cubic metres of groundwater in natural aquifers, and 2,000 billion cubic metres of non-renewable water. According to the government, just 20 percent of renewable water resources are being tapped, and almost none of the non-renewable sources.
There are few studies and little data to help humanitarian actors understand the scope of Niger's needs in agriculture, livestock, people and energy. The Ministry of Water Resources did not respond to IRIN's requests for an interview.
In a national investment report presented at a 2008 conference on "Water for agriculture and energy in Africa", officials stressed that "Water is one of the government's priorities" to fight food security and poverty, and estimated that investments totalling $1.5 billion would be required in the "short, medium and long term".
Donors, including the World Bank, African Development Bank, European Union, and various countries, have injected more than $300 million in projects directly or indirectly related to agriculture, livestock, and water over the past decade, according to the government. In December 2009 the previous government announced it would invest $54 million in 2010 to improve the availability and quality of water.
Despite these collective efforts, the needs are still far from being covered, particularly in drought-prone regions like Zinder and Tanout. Holmes highlighted the need to act in concert to deal with the root causes of food insecurity and malnutrition in Niger.
"The water is there, [deep] down. It is worth investing in," he urged. "We could do that; the cost is huge, but it is not impossible."
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