The threat of famine is again stalking the Sahel, a band of semiarid land stretching across Africa south of the Sahara. The U.N. World Food Program warned on Friday that some 10 million people face hunger over the next three months before the next harvest in September
- if it comes.
"People have lost crops, livestock, and the ability to cope on their own, and the levels of malnutrition among women and children have already risen to very high levels," said Thomas Yanga, WFP Regional Director for West Africa.
The U.N.'s humanitarian chief, John Holmes, said at the end of a four-day visit to neighboring Chad that many Chadians have gone as far as Libya to search for food.
"The level of malnutrition is already beyond the danger point," Holmes said Thursday. "If we do not act now or as quickly as possible, there is a chance the food crisis will become a disaster."
In Niger, some say the growing food crisis could be worse than the one that struck the country in 2005, when aid organizations treated tens of thousands of children for malnutrition.
"We have lost so much we cannot count," said one 45-year-old tribesman with a family of 20 to feed. He and others on Gadabeji Reserve drive starving donkeys through the burnt orange haze of a sandstorm to gather what little water they can on the desiccated plain and struggle to draw water from private wells.
Famine is nothing new to Niger, a former French colony nearly twice the size of Texas. The Sahel cuts through the middle of the country, serving as the dividing line between the sands of the Sahara and the lush farmlands of neighboring Nigeria to the south. Severe droughts have punctuated the region's history for centuries.
Yet outside of uranium mining, agriculture serves as the sole economic engine for a country where just more than a quarter of the population knows how to read. Generation after generation follows worn seasonal tracks, their belongings often fitted onto a single donkey-driven pallet.
Typically, the herders move south at the onset of December, searching for grazing lands. But this year they found only dried lakes and diminishing wells, said Hasane Baka, a regional administrator for AREN, a Nigerien development group for cattlemen.
"People were moving in all directions," Baka said.
Some have crossed into Nigeria, begging for food on the streets of the northern city of Katsina. Others remain behind with their cattle, knowing the livestock would die on a long trip south that could end with Nigerian police simply turning them back. Instead, they wait for rains that might not come.
Those who remain drive their cows into Dakoro, the largest and closest city for nomadic cattlemen. At the open-air market, the ribs of some cattle are starkly visible against their hides. Others die along the road or in trucks on the way.
"You can see the skin and bones of much of them," said trader Ibrahim Tarbanassa, 68.
A single cow once sold for the equivalent of $200. Now, some go for as little as $120
- if they sell at all. Food prices remain high after speculators cornered the already poor harvest last year.