The HC Interview: Averting a humanitarian catastrophe in Niger

30 Jan 2012

Tahoua, Niger: Mothers walking home with supplementary food rations for their children. Credit: Catherine-Lune Grayson/IRIN
As concern grows across the Sahel, Guido Cornale explains what aid organizations are doing to help Niger’s Government tackle a rapidly growing food and nutrition crisis

Dr. Guido Cornale, UNICEF Representative in Niger since April 2010, has been Humanitarian Coordinator ad interim since August 2011. This year, there are warnings that the country faces a potentially devastating food crisis. Dr. Cornale explains what humanitarian organizations are doing to help the Government stave off a catastrophe.


Q: A food and nutrition crisis is looming in Niger. How serious is it?

A: The situation is very serious and is raising increased concern among humanitarian actors. It is not just Niger that is affected; it is the entire Sahel sub-region. And the crisis is not only looming but it has already started. We have evidence that families and households in several rural communities in Niger, particularly in the Tillabéry and Tahoua regions in the west, are running out of food stocks and their cattle is threatened by drought.

Q: How many people are we talking about?

A: A recent survey on household food security carried out in December 2011 has found that 38 per cent of the total population, 5.4 million people, is in the grip of food insecurity. This means that if no humanitarian assistance is deployed, they will face starvation and increasingly high levels of child malnutrition and death. The situation will get worse with the progression of the hunger season, which this year will start as early as February or March and last until the next harvest. Actually, for some families the lean season has already started and will continue until the next harvest, hopefully in October. Acute child malnutrition has remained high, well above the alert level of 10 per cent, as children have barely recovered from the food and nutrition crisis of 2010. Against a background of chronic food insecurity and chronic under-nutrition, which affects more than half of Nigerien children, this new shock may have a devastating impact on the youngest and most vulnerable.

Q: What are aid agencies doing?

A: Relief activities have already started. The Government has put in place an emergency response plan, and UN agencies and NGOs are already implementing cash-for-work and food-for-work programmes in the most affected areas. Constant attention is being paid to the nutritional status of children, in order to ensure that they are actively screened and referred to therapeutic feeding centres as soon as they become malnourished.

Humanitarian organizations, under Government leadership, have issued a US$229 million Consolidated Appeal Plan for 2012. So far, just 7 per cent is funded and we very much look forward to increased engagement from the international community.

Kristalina Georgieva, the European Commissioner for humanitarian aid, recently came to the Sahel and witnessed the situation on the ground, and pledged additional funds from ECHO, as well as from the EU for longer-term action.

It is evident to all of us that if we don’t tackle the structural causes of insecurity and malnutrition, which are linked to climate change, demographic growth, unsustainable livelihoods and a low level of education, we will never break the cycle of recurrent food and nutrition crises and child malnutrition.

Q: How does this compare to normal years, or to previous crises?

A: UNICEF estimates that in the Sahel sub-region, over 1 million children under age 5 will suffer from severe acute malnutrition in 2012. In Niger, we expect up to 390,000 cases and we are planning for their treatment. By comparison, in 2011, which was a normal year because there was a good harvest, the national health system, supported by UN agencies and NGOs, admitted 300,000 severely malnourished children for treatment in therapeutic feeding centres. This means that the structure is in place and the capacity exists to provide an effective response.

Q: Unrest in Libya and electoral violence in Côte d’Ivoire last year caused hundreds of thousands of Nigeriens to return home. To what extent will their return affect the situation?

A: The unrest in Libya and, to a lesser extent, the crisis in Côte d’Ivoire, has three main consequences. First, humanitarian, for the return of 200,000 people in distress has added to the vulnerability of their home communities. Second, economic, since remittances have been lost and trade halted. And the third is related to security, due to a massive influx of weapons, which has fuelled terrorism and banditry.

Q: Does the security situation affect humanitarian access?

A: So far the humanitarian community has been able to continue delivering as planned, while additional security measures have been put in place to mitigate the security risks and allow the UN to continue doing its work in the field, directly and in collaboration with national and international NGOs. We have OCHA staff in all the regions of the country, and humanitarian agencies have a strong field presence, in particular WFP, UNICEF, WHO, FAO and IOM.

Q: Can a full-blown crisis be averted?

A: I think we can avert a humanitarian catastrophe, because we got an early warning. The Government of Niger started alerting the international community as early as August 2011 that a new crisis was building up, due to reports of insufficient and irregular rains. That was confirmed in November when the magnitude of the harvest and pasture deficit was assessed.  The Government has put in place an emergency programme, including irrigation programmes, the replenishment of food reserves and opening up markets. Starting in September, the UN, under the leadership of OCHA, prepared a Consolidated Appeal, and international donors were alerted through a coherent and timely communication and advocacy strategy. So yes, a catastrophe can be averted, but we have to act now.

Q: Do humanitarian organizations have a good relationship with the Government?

A: Definitely yes! In 2005, efforts to respond to the food and nutrition crisis were hampered by Government resistance, and a tendency to downplay the severity of the problem. With the new Government, the situation is completely different. There is transparency, openness, and a strong political will to address both the crisis at hand and the underlying structural problems. The political situation is favourable to a successful response.

Q: Last year, the Niger CAP was only just over half funded. What are your expectations this year?

A: I am quite confident that the international community will not shy away from the Sahel crisis. We cannot say that the alert was late, and we are not facing the same huge security and logistics problems that exist in the Horn of Africa. There are no excuses for failure.

Reporting by Franck Kuwonu

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