Niger food crisis ‘worse than 2005’, UN warns

25/05/2010 | Simon Pirani

Niger’s food crisis is potentially more serious than the 2005 famine, international agencies warned this week – while agriculture experts called for a focus on raising small farmers’ productivity

Niger’s food crisis is potentially more serious than the 2005 famine, international agencies warned this week – while agriculture experts called for a focus on raising small farmers’ productivity.

Elizabeth Byrs of the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) in Geneva, which oversees UN international aid efforts, told Emerging Markets that the Niger crisis “appears to be worse than that of 2005”.

OCHA is seeking to raise $190 million for Niger. But the proportion of humanitarian appeal commitments that are funded had fallen from 51% in 2008 to 37% in 2009 and 36% this year, Byrs warned, chiefly due to the financial crisis, the Haiti disaster, and donor fatigue.

A National Rapid Household Survey conducted in Niger in December last year indicated that 7.8 million people, or 58.2% of the population, are at risk of food insecurity. Of these, 2.7 million are classified as “severely vulnerable” – meaning they have exhausted normal coping strategies, are regularly eating less, and are eating last-resort supplies.

Niger’s former president Mamadou Tandja, who was removed by a military coup in February, suppressed discussion on food security issues. Researchers hope for better from the new authorities, who are now preparing elections.

“We hope there will now be a focus on food security by the government”, said Ephraim Nkonya, senior research fellow at the US-based International Food Policy Research Institute.

Improving water harvesting and irrigation is crucial for food security in Niger, which has a dry, predominantly desert climate.

Farmers in Niger have pioneered the Zai rainwater harvesting technique, in which water is retained in pits, Nkonya said. “But development of small-scale irrigation lags far behind areas with similar geography and social structure just across the border in Nigeria.”

Government action is essential to create conditions to improve yields, Nkonya said.

Over the longer term, only investment that raises productivity among the poorest farmers can prevent food crises, experts believe. Andrew Dorward, professor of development economics at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London, said: “What is needed is a reinvigoration of investment in research and development in agriculture.

“An important debate concerns whether investment should focus on large farms in middle income countries, such as Brazil, or whether it should be used to address the problems of small farmers in Africa producing staple foodstuffs.

“It is much more difficult to invest in small farms in Africa. Not only new methods, but systems that allow people to use those new methods, have to be put in place. But many of us argue that for living standards to be raised and, ultimately, for some people to move off the land, those people first have to be raised up from subsistence farming levels.”

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