Monday, August 02, 2010

Food available, but many can't afford it in Niger

Time now to get an update on the famine in Niger where 12 million people face starvation. 80 percent of the population are food insecure and urgent food and money need to be brought into the region to prevent mass starvation.

The lack of food was partially caused by a very heavy rain season that destroyed crops. Many aid organizations in the country say that food can be purchased but commodity prices for many food stuffs make the cost beyond what most people can afford.

From the Guardian, writer Afua Hirsch was invited into the country by the NGO Plan to inform the world about the famine.

Along the route to Tillabéri, a large crowd has gathered at a busy clearing beside the road. Hundreds of people from local villages – teenage cattleherders, elderly farmers, nursing mothers and young children – jostle for space in the intense heat, forming separate queues for men and women that snake loosely around sacks of tightly packed corn.

The goal for those here is the allocation of 100kg rations for each seven people – the average size of a family in Niger. Talata Sourghakoy, an animated elderly woman sweating profusely under a long, black hijab which covers her traditional African cloth, has travelled from the nearby village of Sakoria and has been waiting all day.

"There are 15 people in my family, this will not be enough," she said. Despite her emaciated frame and the obvious severity of the situation facing her Sourghakoy jokes about the need for more food. Her smile reveals only a few bottom teeth, and prompts lively interruptions from other women standing nearby. As they move back and forth between the piles of corn and the donkeys lined up along the roadside, the women insist that the distribution is insufficient to protect their families from hunger.

It is not the first time they have received free food. In June a government report showed malnutrition levels in Niger had already passed the emergency threshold. Sourghakoy said food given out then ran out less than two weeks after she received it.

Like many villagers in the area, she has a field but last year it produced no harvest. She has survived by selling pepper and dried onions in the market – which earns her 50p a day. She now uses this to buy small portions of the crops which her family should have been able to grow.

"I have been feeding my family half portions – I make dinner and divide it in two, we eat the other half for breakfast. We are hungry. I pray to God that there will be food from the harvest this year. If there isn't, we will need more food distributions, or we will die."

The paradox of this year's worsening food shortage is the presence of plentiful quantities of food in many markets throughout the country. "There is a relatively good flow of food into the markets in Niger, yet prices remain extremely high," said Ferrera. "Since 2008 there has been a lot of speculation and tension in the markets. There has been good food production in neighbouring countries, yet prices are abnormally high."

The potential for high food prices to cause food insecurity and famine has been criticised in recent years. Speculation in agricultural commodities on the international financial markets since 2006 has been blamed for price increases of up to 300% for some basic foodstuffs, including rice and cereals, a phenomenon described by UN special rapporteur on the right to food, Jean Ziegler, as "silent mass murder".

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