Mothers leaving the CRENAS weith their weekly rations. © Karine Klein

"There is a growing consensus that we’re witnessing the first stirrings of the long predicted and much discussed food crisis that has occupied most of the waking (and sleeping) hours of virtually everybody in the NGO community in Niger since it became apparent that the harvest of 2009 had been an undiluted disaster."

Mid-May, Zinder

I Promise that this one is going to be short and sweet and for the sole purpose of describing briefly the current situation on the ground. Perhaps the growing media interest in Niger’s worsening food security situation has reached your ears over recent weeks, despite the headline grabbing ability of that eruption on a small largely ice bound north Atlantic island!

The last 2 weeks have seen a small but significant increase in patient numbers attending our CRENAS. There is a growing consensus that we’re witnessing the first stirrings of the long predicted and much discussed food crisis that has occupied most of the waking (and sleeping) hours of virtually everybody in the NGO community in Niger since it became apparent that the harvest of 2009 had been an undiluted disaster. It has been particularly bad in Zinder, the place where I’m working and where MSF has most of its programmes.

The notion of a Food Security Officer is something that I hadn’t given much thought to previously but in this context where our raison d’être is to combat severe malnutrition he, Djibril, is a key player. His role is to build a picture of the ‘food situation on the ground and enable MSF to more accurately predict approaching food shortages and to prepare and plan an adequate response.

Firstly Djibril keeps a very close eye on the price of the important foodstuffs in the market places across Zinder. Currently for example rice and sorghum are more expensive than he can ever remember. Also he informs us that the few vegetables that can be grown in this incredibly hot and arid region - mainly onions, tomatoes, peppers and a few hardy lettuce, cabbage and carrot species - are now fetching record prices.

Secondly he records the changing pattern of meal types. These days, a single hard-won meal constitutes the nutritional daily intake of the majority of rural households in Zinder. This shows how low household food stores are running, and how little ability families have to purchase extra food.

Thirdly Djibril describes what the men in the households are doing in order to supplement family income. In this region, the most reliable source of income outside of selling harvest surplus is migration either northwards to Libya or southwards to Nigeria. This year, not just the men but whole families are migrating. Djibril has reported a marked rise in this unhappy phenomenon.

Finally, you can’t mention a desert region and not mention what a local Toureg tribesman described to me as the singular issue that fuels the imagination of a desert dweller more powerfully even than desire for a woman! That is the thought of humble water. In the west of Ireland, dry days are welcomed with an old style reverence and awe. ‘Rain events’ here have the same effect but multiplied many times over. Here water takes pre-eminence over everything as without the know-how to ensure sufficient water for your family and livestock, life here becomes impossible. Regrettably Djibril has noted a steady slide in water quality and availability since the end of last year’s unseasonably dry ‘wet season’.

I don’t envy Djibril. For the last number of months he has had the unhappy lot of being the consistent bearer of these bad news stories, stories that have allowed us to build a pretty solid impression that the next 6 to 9 months are going to be extremely tough and difficult for a very great portion of rural households in Zinder, and that without a massive mobilization of resources, both governmental and nongovernmental, a food crisis shall happen and infant and childhood mortality rates shall soar.

Enough for now…..see u next time…..