Niger: Hit by a food crisis, Tillabéry now faces a cholera epidemic

3 August, 2012
Villagers going about their daily lives: bathing, doing laundry, fetching water, playing in the Niger River. Credit: OCHA Niger/Franck Kuwonu
Villagers going about their daily lives: bathing, doing laundry, fetching water, playing in the Niger River. Credit: OCHA Niger/Franck Kuwonu

Humanitarian organizations warn that western Niger’s Tillabéry region could see a drastic increase in cholera cases if the response is not scaled up urgently. In a region already affected by a severe food crisis and hosting a large refugee population, more than 3,000 cholera cases and over 60 deaths have been recorded along the Niger River this year.  

“This is three times the number of cases registered throughout the entire country in 2011. At this rate, we should be prepared for at least 9,000 cases by December,” said Innocent Nzeyimana, the World Health Organization (WHO) Emergencies Manager in Niger. 
OCHA, WHO and UNICEF have taken the lead in coordinating the response to the epidemic with local authorities and other humanitarian partners. In addition to operating treatment centres, aid workers are distributing water-purification products such as Aquatab and PUR to families and helping them treat their water supply.   
“But that is not enough,” said the Chief Medical Officer of the Tillabéry Health District, Saley Daouda. “You show them how to do it. They would do it for you. But once you leave, they would just go back to their old ways. Some complain about the taste of the purified water, and others just return to using the contaminated water.”
Parts of the Niger River are made of tiny islands where people live without clean drinking water and proper latrines, Daouda explained. About half of the region’s rural population live on the islands and use the surrounding water for various purposes— drinking, bathing and laundry. He added that only one in 10 people in the area have access to clean drinking water. 
“With high levels of water contamination and inadequate sanitation, our area is so prone to cholera. We’ve had cases in 2010 and 2011, but this time it is really getting serious.”
With the ongoing rainy season, aid organizations are concerned that there might be more cholera cases and that the disease could continue spreading down the river to communities near the capital, Niamey. As the third-longest river in Africa, the Niger runs through neighbouring countries such as Mali, Benin and Nigeria. In West Africa’s Sahel region, where millions of people face a major food and nutrition crisis, a large-scale cholera outbreak would severely worsen the humanitarian situation. 
North of the river, close to the Malian border, is the city of Ayorou, where a dozen cholera cases have been reported in a large refugee camp in recent weeks. There have been no cholera-related deaths so far, but organizations are worried about a potential outbreak. 
“In a closed environment like a camp, the spread is very fast and we may end up dealing far beyond the 9,000 projected cases. We don’t want that to happen,” added Nzeyimana. 
This year, humanitarian organizations have asked for about US$489 million to carry out aid work, including $6 million for water and sanitation projects and $13 million for health care. So far, these sectors remain underfunded, affecting critical programmes for the prevention and treatment of cholera. 
Reporting by Franck Kuwonu/ OCHA Niger