May 30, 2010

Millions Face Starvation From African Drought

The Gadabeji Reserve's grass is paltry after a drought killed off last year's crops, leaving cattle too weak to stand and too skinny to sell.

This threatens families in the area because they do not have any way to buy grain and feed themselves. The threat is stalking the Sahel, a band of semiarid land that stretches across Africa south of the Sahara. The U.N. World Food Program said on Friday that about 10 million people face hunger over the next three months.

"People have lost crops, livestock, and the ability to cope on their own, and the levels of malnutrition among women and children have already risen to very high levels," Thomas Yanga, WFP Regional Director for West Africa, told The Associated Press.

John Holmes, the U.N.'s humanitarian chief, said at the end of a four-day visit to Chad that many in the area have gone as far as Libya in search of food.

"The level of malnutrition is already beyond the danger point," Holmes said Thursday. "If we do not act now or as quickly as possible, there is a chance the food crisis will become a disaster."

Some in Niger say that the growing food crisis could be worse than the one that struck the country in 2005, when aid organizations treated tens of thousands of children for malnutrition.

"We have lost so much we cannot count," one 45-year-old tribesman with a family of 20 to feed told AP. He and others on Gadabeji Reserve drive starving donkeys through the burnt orange haze of a sandstorm to gather what little water they can on the desiccated plain and struggle to draw water from private wells.

The threat of famine is nothing new to Niger. The Sahel cuts through the middle of the country, serving as the dividing line between the sands of the Sahara and the lush farmlands of neighboring Nigeria to the south. Severe droughts have punctuated the region's history for hundreds of years.

However, outside of uranium mining, agriculture serves as the sole economic engine for a country where just over a quarter of the population knows how to read. Generation after generation follow the same, worn seasonal tracks.

The herders typically move south at the onset of December, searching for grazing land.  However, Hasane Baka, a regional administrator for AREN, said this year they found only dried lakes and diminishing wells.

"People were moving in all directions," Baka told AP.

Some crossed into Nigeria, begging for food on the streets of the northern city of Katsina.  Others remain along with their cattle, knowing the livestock would die during a trip south that could end with Nigerian police simply turning them back.  They wait for rains instead, which may not come.

Those that remain drive their cows into Dakoro, which is the largest and closest city for nomadic cattlemen. The ribs of some cattle are starkly visible against their hides, and others die along the road or in trucks on their journey.

"You can see the skin and bones of much of them," trader Ibrahim Tarbanassa, 68, told AP.

A single cow once sold for about $200. Now they sell for as little as $120, if they sell at all.

Roughly half of Niger's children suffered stunted growth. Mothers walk their children as far as 18.6 miles to reach one of two aid stations operated by Medecins Sans Frontiers, or Doctors Without Borders, said the agency's medical coordinator Barbara Maccagno.

"It's very hot and without any food available to the family, we're afraid we'll see more," she told AP.

She said he agency could offer children meals of vitamin-enriched powdered milks and other foods to help bring a child's weight up. However, many children need five weeks in order to gain a stable weight. She said that during that time, the mother must stay with the child.

There is no name for the drought that faces the country now. Many can only wait to see an end.

"Every time, it's the same situation," Maccagno said.


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World Food Program