Around 90 percent of the labour force works in agriculture or raising livestock, and agriculture is mainly rain fed. Even when the rainy season is good, more than half of the population does not have enough food due to the country's poor natural resource base and extremely low cereal yields.
But in 2004, the combined onslaught of drought and desert locusts in the country's agro-pastoral areas devastated agricultural production. In the affected regions, this resulted in a loss in cereal production of an estimated 15 percent compared to the average annual production over the past five years, and the livestock fodder deficit is estimated at over 36 percent of needs.
With limited food supplies, increasingly high prices for local food staples, such as millet, and falling livestock prices, many vulnerable households, particularly pastoralists, have had difficulty accessing food.
Slow donor response
Early warning schemes, including FAO's Global Information and Early Warning System on Food and Agriculture (GIEWS), forecast a food crisis in late 2004.
"The extent of damage from the combination of drought and locusts was known, but not the extent of economic depression and the impact of crop failure on rural populations," says Henri Josserand, Chief of GIEWS.
An appeal for funding was made in May 2005, but the donor response has been slow.
"In addition to the deaths and suffering that have already been incurred, the cost of providing food to the needy populations now is much greater than it would have been if the appeals had been heard in time," says Josserand.
Despite its limited resources, the Government of Niger has taken steps to respond to the food crisis:
- Food stocks were created in October 2004 to offset the annual rise in grain prices during the lean season, and grain was sold at subsidized prices in the areas of greatest need.
- Grain banks were set up to help village women manage their food stocks.
- Food-for-work schemes were established for those left penniless by the failure of their crops.
Coping mechanisms lost
"Niger's farmers have become so impoverished over the past decade that they lack reserves to cope with the crisis," says Josserand.
Many families have been forced to consume seed stocks and sell or eat livestock to survive.
Migration is a regular coping mechanism during the dry season, but scarce pasture and water has made migration more difficult, forcing families to look for new places to go and at times resulting in conflict over limited resources.
In addition, food crises in neighbouring countries due to the locust and drought situation, as well as restrictions on immigration to Nigeria and conflict in Côte d'Ivoire, have limited cross-boarder migration and opportunities for seasonal workers.
Information Officer, FAO
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