Food Crisis in the Republic of Niger: What needs to be done?
Author: Awa Mangie Achu Samba
Originally Published at Peace and Conflict Monitor on: 07/01/2010
Food insecurity is increasing in the world. There are 1.6 billion people who are food insecure with figures increasing ever year. The vulnerability of increasing food insecurity is attributed to several factors, amongst which, is climate change. Climate change impacts are, without any doubt, felt most in developing nations. According to Adger et al.:
[…] the risks associated with climatic changes are real but highly uncertain. Societal vulnerability to the risks associated with climate change may exacerbate ongoing social and economic challenges, particularly for those parts of societies dependent on resources that are sensitive to changes in climate. Risks are apparent in agriculture, fisheries and many other components that constitute the livelihood of rural populations in developing countries.
Niger, a developing country with an estimated population of 15,306,252 is one of the ten poorest countries in the world which undergoes phases of severe food crisis. Approximately 63% of its total population lives on below $1 a day, and 90% of its population depend on subsistent agriculture. Adult literacy rate is as low as 15% with a life expectancy which spans up to 46 years. Men, women and children all suffer the plight of food crisis in one way or the other.
Niger has very little in the way of a nutritional data collection and analysis system. However, international organizations and civil groups have come out with data in different localities of Niger. In April/May 2005 a survey by Médecin Sans Frontier (MSF) in Tahoua and Maradi regions produced global acute malnutrition (GAM) rates of 19.5% and 19.3% and severe acute malnutrition (SAM) rates of 2.9% and 2.4%, respectively. In January of the same year, a survey conducted by Helen Keller International/WFP in Maradi and Zinder regions showed GAM rates of 13.4% for both regions, and SAM rates of 2.2% and 2.7%, respectively. MSF, in a
pre-2005 NGO household survey in Maradi found that the rates of chronic infant malnutrition were the same in ‘well-off’ as well as ‘poor’ households.
Food crises in Niger are becoming very disastrous. According to USAID,
[…] there is a very severe, but localized, food security crisis in some pastoral and agro-pastoral areas … caused by an early end of last year’s rains, locust damage to some pasture lands, current high prices of food, and chronic non-food causes of malnutrition. In these areas, high malnutrition rates, some of which reveal severe local problems, will inevitably be accompanied by increases in the “normally” high levels of infant mortality.
It is therefore important to look at the effects of food security on the livelihood of rural communities in the Republic of Niger.
The first part of this report looks at how climatic change has affected rain fed agricultural productivity of farmers and stock-farming. The second part looks at the role of institutions and socio-economic variations which have contributed to food insecurity. Thirdly, it briefly brings out what has been done by the government and international bodies in reducing the food crises situation. The paper then concludes with some policy recommendations.
Climate change and agriculture in the agro pastoral region of Niger:
Extreme weather events, such as high temperatures, heavy rainstorms, and droughts, disrupt crop production. Such climate changes, as well as the loss of land to desertification and increasing ocean temperatures are all elements impacting agriculture.
Temperature changes and water scarcity: Agriculture is highly dependent on water availability, and temperature change alters rainfall, evaporation, and soil moisture storage. With increasing temperature there has been an increase in water evaporation from the soils with no replenishment, as a result of a decrease in water table. 
Pest and diseases: Several reports such as Afrol News and Humanitarian International by Eilerts reported that “late in the main 2004 rainy season, locusts invaded the agro-pastoral and pastoral zones of Niger, causing substantial but very localized, damage to grasslands and crops.” Likewise, the effect of pests was not only experienced by the farmers but the pastoralists who experienced a great loss in fodder, many of whom had to liquidate their cattle. According to
[…] a joint CILSS/FEWS NET/WFP/GON mission in October 2004 […] a fodder deficit in these pastoral areas was 154% greater than the 2000 deficit, and at 4,642,000 tons, was the largest fodder deficit in Niger’s history. One-third of this deficit was caused by locusts, and two-thirds was caused by drought.
Soil fertility and erosion: Cleared vegetation exposes the soil to the sun; which causes it to dry up, and become infertile as a result of nutrient loss. In due course, land cultivation becomes impracticable, rendering land permanently impoverished due to soil erosion, pushing farmers to use chemicals such as fertilizers which are in the long run detrimental to the soil water and air quality.
Socio-economic improvement: a necessary tool for food security:
High poverty levels: Niger is a heavily indebted poor country with about 63 percent of the population being poor. The extremely poor living in rural areas constitute 36 percent of the population, while the extreme poor living in urban areas are estimated at 31 percent of the total population. Farmers account for 88 percent of the rural population, and 68 percent of them are poor, and surveys have shown that female headed households are the poorest. The country is ranked by the United Nations Human development report of 2005/2009 as the last out of 182 countries. This high poverty level limits the ability of inhabitants of Niger, especially farmers, to gain access to, afford, and produce sustainable, quality food. Agriculture here is mainly subsistent and is very seasonal increasing their dependence on climatic conditions.
Low literacy levels: In Niger, the literacy rate (15 years and above who can read and write) in 2010 is estimated at 28.7 percent of the total population with a percentage of approximately 43 percent for men and 15 percent for women. Little mastery of human capital is a setback for improvements in agricultural development as well as research as those (mostly women) to implement the new technology are not in the best position to understand this technology as they constitute the group with the highest illiteracy level. This means that the application of research is slow and difficult, thus indicating a need for increased investments in both education and agricultural research.
Government investments in agricultural research and development: Very little investment is been done in terms of research and development. This is because the Niger government was forced by the Brettoon Woods institutions to cut down government expenditures of which the agricultural sector was part of. Farmers are then left on their own to produce food and cash crops based on their own local techniques which are becoming very limiting with the current variations in climatic conditions. Apart from Breton Wood regulations, Uranium exploitation, though at very low environmental standards, contributes about 30 percent of Niger’s foreign exchange earnings. This main source of government income is very limited and cannot be relied on to contribute greatly to government income in the future. Niger’s economic growth is seasonal, based on rain fed agriculture which is exported to France, Nigeria, Spain, and Japan amongst others. This does not permit the country to have substantial investments in agriculture, infrastructure and transportation apart from relying on foreign aid.
Uranium mining: The exploitation of uranium has increased as the government has handed out more than one hundred licenses to new companies in 2007. The added pressure on the pasture and agricultural land is “eroding their way of life and creating a radioactive waste land” according to Odiada talking to Al Jazeera News, who adds that their animals are dying from diseases, communities have lost hundreds of animals, and they have been forced to move further in the North where both animals and humans are crowded on smalls pieces of land. The AREVA company has made several report stating that they respect environmental standards, however, water levels have dropped since the onset of mining. Mining demands hundreds of cubic meter of water every hour for cleansing the uranium which is eventually consumed by the animals and humans. The government is making no efforts to carry out an independent environmental impact assessment to evaluate the safety nets of the exploitation under the pretext of not having adequate funds for such a study to be done and relying on the good will of the company to carry out such assessments. Little effort is being done by the government because they have received money already from the company and cannot reverse the situation, leaving the inhabitants of the region to struggle with these environmental issues on their own.
International trade agreements: So far Niger’s production is not subsidized by the government, making production cost very high for producers. This limits the ability of local crops to compete with imported food crops. Also, according to Paul Collier, the United States of America and the European Union trade negotiators proposed that “instead of the OECD lowering these production subsidies poor countries might shift to alternatives.” Implying that developing countries in general, and Niger in particular, which have little or no alternatives should “invent” them or let the market be invaded by foreign commodities. All of this limits their ability to compete in the world market, thus reducing their foreign export earnings, which are necessary if they are to look for alternative solutions and improve on their food security.
Consequences of food crises:
Food crises in Niger have had severe negative consequences which range from increased violence to increased corruption and psychosocial effects to increased dependence on food aid.
Increased social violence: According to the Niger Authority report of 2000:
[…] the increasing economic difficulties and the breakdown in the social fabric have led to an increase in violence within families, exploitation, poor treatment, and the abuse of women and children.
Apart from household violence with women and children having to suffer the most, pastoralists and farmers are engaged in farmer–grazer conflicts as Agro-pastoralists began moving their animals south, earlier than usual, to graze on the remains of harvested crops. According to 2008 reports by Voice of America and Al Jazeera, the Tuareg-led rebel group is gradually increasing as men join them as an alternative to income for livelihood. This has increased the conflict in the region – not as a direct result of scarce resources but as an alternative source of income. They also want to benefit from uranium exploitations as the northern region has been socially excluded and suffers from social injustice by the government who has undermined this group of people under the pretext of “rebel groups”.
Psychological effects: Poor women, men and children are greatly disturbed by this change in weather which greatly impact agricultural productivity. Siefert and colleagues (2001) cited in Slack and Yoo,
[…] examined the effect of food insufficiency on welfare mothers’ psychological and physical well-being. They found that food insufficiency is positively associated with higher levels of major depression, general anxiety, and physical limitations, and lower levels of self-rated health status among current and former welfare recipients.
Likewise indirectly related to agriculture is the frequent variation in climate which impacts agricultural productivity. According to the World Health Organization (WHO),
[…] rapid change in climate is likely to influence and increase mental health issues. This is will be especially evident in the case of climate-related natural hazards, where property losses and displacement from residences can cause significant psychological stress, with long-lasting effects on anxiety levels and depression. . It is known that social disruptions resulting from family and community dislocations due to extreme weather events pose a special stress for children and those of lower socio-economic status.
What is being done?
Food aid: Niger has received a lot of food in over the past the international community has turned to give a lot of food aid to the Niger. The World Food Program, for example, is appealing for “US$182 million to scale its operations” in Niger unfortunately it is short by US $ 96. Other international agencies are working in the region to see how they can improve on the situation through aid.
What needs to be done in addition?
In my opinion, international trade agreements need to protect all stakeholders found in the production process and encourage commodity crops to be more competitive on an international scale. However, Niger needs to work on its productivity quality in order to meet international food safety standards and competitiveness.
The government of Niger needs to redress certain preoccupying and existing conditions found in the country. Though it is believed that the government is meant to be democratic, it does not take into consideration the issue of participatory democracy nor does it respect the human rights of its citizens for which it has the responsibility to protect. This is clearly expressed in the nonchalant behavior of the government in redressing, for example, the environmental and health concerns of the inhabitants of the north whose waters are polluted and agricultural land (on which they totally depend on for survival) is being destroyed by the AREVA uranium mining company. Inhabitants of the Northern region should benefit from the uranium exploitation. Such benefits may include health facilities, environmental impact assessment and control, education and employment.
More investment should be carried out in research and development of culturally acceptable food stuffs which have nutritional value. Investments too should be carried out in road networks in order to facilitate regional trade between neighboring countries. This is critical because Niger is a landlocked country. Investments should be carried out in education to facilitate the integration of new technologies. Also the aspect of indigenous knowledge is a point to build upon. Farmers and herders may not be formally educated, but they have mastered many advanced techniques, such as land conservation and biodiversity preservation mechanisms.
Regional and south-south cooperation should be fostered between the government of Niger and other governments. Though this has its short comings such as exploitation by emerging countries with very high demands because they have no colonial guilt of any type and are practicing the business as usual model, I think emerging states should work rather in trying to bring up weaker nation states. This will allow them form stronger coalitions to compete and influence international laws.
Aid in general and food aid in particular are simply temporal measures to reduce hunger and prevent people from starving and dying. However, food aid does not act as such. It acts as a long term measure, and it is difficult for a country to grow based on aid. With the present economic crises, donors have dropped the quantity of aid given. This needs to serve as an eye opener to not only the government of Niger but also all other aid dependent countries that is it time they cut down on corruption and embezzlement. The governments need to put the needs of their own country first before their personal needs. Aid should be more targeted towards programs that are necessary for the country and not broad based programs primarily serving the interests of donor countries.
Niger has suffered and will continue to suffer from food security and its varying consequences if drastic measures are not taken by the national government likewise the international community. With the advent of climate change, inhabitants of Niger are left to develop coping mechanisms on their own as little efforts are being made by the government to bring the country out of this situation.
Bio: Awa Mangie Achu Samba is an MA candidate at the University for Peace.