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Amidst Drought and Famine, Niger Leads West Africa in Addressing Crisis

July 12, 2012 at 12:00 AM EDT
Eight West African countries are currently suffering from drought and famine. As part of our Food for 9 Billion Series, Fred de Sam Lazaro looks at how Niger is preparing for its crisis.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: Next: a looming famine in West Africa and one country’s move to address chronic food shortages.

Our story is part of the Food for 9 Billion series, a multimedia project that explores the challenges of feeding a growing world in a time of social and environmental change. It’s a NewsHour partnership with the Center for Investigative Reporting, Homelands Productions, and American Public Media’s Marketplace.

Special correspondent Fred de Sam Lazaro reports from Niger, one of eight drought-stricken countries where relief officials say millions of people are at risk of starvation.

FRED DE SAM LAZARO: At 8:00 a.m. each day, the weigh-in begins at the health center near Madarounfa, a town near Niger’s remote southern border with Nigeria.

Babies are weighed and the girth of their arms also measured, a color-coded proxy for malnutrition and famine. There was still an occasional green, or normal, on this day. Children in the yellow zone were more common, but in a few weeks, many more will fall, like Amina, into the red.

Tests followed to assess her condition before Amina was transferred to the emergency feeding center a few miles away. It is near capacity, and the medical supervisor expects they will begin pitching expansion tents much earlier this year.

DR. HASSAN AOUADE, Niger (through translator): In May, our admissions were up more than 10 percent from 2011, and that usually means our June and July will be really bad.

FRED DE SAM LAZARO: Hunger is widespread in this region and famine frequent. But that very routineness is helping relief workers anticipate and contain the damage this year far better than the last crisis, in 2010, says the U.S. ambassador to Niger, Bisa Williams.

BISA WILLIAMS, United States Ambassador to Niger: This is not like the situation in 2010. I think we are better prepared, and I think it is because the government of President Issoufou really did alert the community very early. They sounded the alarm as far back as October, September of last year.

FRED DE SAM LAZARO: Williams says unlike earlier governments, which denied or downplayed famines, President Mahamadou Issoufou, elected early in 2011, has declared food security a top priority.

MAHAMADOU ISSOUFOU, President of Niger (through translator): I remember the first big drought in 1973-’74. Then again, in 1984, we had another one. Since then, the time between droughts has been getting shorter, and I believe this is attributable to climate change.

FRED DE SAM LAZARO: Niger is a landlocked former French colony. The Sahara Desert lies in the north and has steadily crept into the semi-arid south, where most food is grown. Adding to this desertification, farmers for decades cleared fields of trees and saplings. They saw no benefit to them and, in any event, under colonial law, trees were state property, seen as a timber resource.

Drought and rapid population growth added to the cutting. By 1975, images from U.S. Geological Survey satellites showed a virtual desert.

President Issoufou said Niger must address desertification if it is to get beyond the chronic food emergencies.

MAHAMADOU ISSOUFOU (through translator): That’s why we have created the 3N initiative, Nigerians helping Nigerians. It’s a structural response to the food crises that are consistently linked with our recurrent droughts. We are convinced that drought does not need to mean famine.

FRED DE SAM LAZARO: A key part of the 3N program is to expand a greening initiative that was actually begun more than two decades ago. This year across Niger, people have been given temporary jobs to tide them through the so-called hunger season, the lean period until the harvest arrives in normal years in September. A major goal of such public works projects is to reverse desertification.

ABDOULAYE SALEY, Farmer (through translator): They give us food to dig these holes. We get four kilos of maize and six kilos of beans. This land is very dry, and they told us it will have trees. We can have better crops and fodder for our animals.

FRED DE SAM LAZARO: The shallow half-moon shaped depressions they’re digging trap rainwater and tree seeds blown across the land or dropped by animals. It’s hard to imagine anything sprouting from such barren conditions. But that’s exactly what’s happened in a wide swath of southern Niger, naturally, says Chris Reij, a Dutch scientist who has worked in this region since the 1970s.

CHRIS REIJ, Dutch Scientist: If you look around you, not a single tree that you see here has been planted. It’s all coming from seed stock in the soil, or it’s coming from trees that were cut in the past. And the root system is still alive. And, given a chance to emerge, it will grow, or it comes from the seeds that you find in the manure that the livestock is depositing here.

FRED DE SAM LAZARO: He says the trees have kept desert sandstorms at bay and restored land to productivity, even though its not that visible early in the rainy season.

So this is a crop. It doesn’t look like much, because it looks like it’s coming out of a desert.

CHRIS REIJ: This is millet, which is one of the main crops here. And it has just been sown probably two weeks ago. But in three months’ time, it will be about one and a half to two meters high, and this whole field will be lush green.

MAN: The leaves on the soil will protect the crop from drought. It will hold the moisture in the soil.

FRED DE SAM LAZARO: Chris Reij and a colleague, Tony Rinaudo, began championing agroforestry in the ’80s, specifically, a model for protecting trees on farmland they first observed on a farm in Burkina Faso, Niger’s neighbor to the west. Their work was picked up, among others, by the aid group World Vision, which produced this video.

Farmers like Sakina Mati were employed to spread the word on the benefits and the new law which gives farmers ownership of trees.

SAKINA MATI, Farmer (through translator): We began using this technique in 2006, and it has worked well for us.

FRED DE SAM LAZARO: One of the key goals was to dispel a commonly held notion that the payback is years away, says Chris Reij.

CHRIS REIJ: Even in the first year, you need to start pruning, so that the tree develops a trunk and starts developing a canopy. So, even in the first year, you already have some benefits by leaves and some twigs the women can use as firewood in the kitchen. And by year two or three, certain trees will be taller than you and me.

FRED DE SAM LAZARO: Trees that are pruned grow sturdier trunks, yielding abundant firewood, the main cooking fuel.

The leaves form livestock fodder and trap moisture in the soil. Improved soil fertility can mean better harvests. And already a few villages have surpluses. The surpluses have been gathered into a grain bank in Dan Saga and many other villages in this region.

In Dan Saga, drought took a severe toll on the harvest last year. But people here said that hasn’t translated to famine.

WOMAN (through translator): The grain bank is helping us a lot. It is keeping our children fed until the harvest comes in.

MAN (through translator): If we didn’t have the grain bank, most of the men wouldn’t be farming. They’d have to leave to find work to buy food.

MAN (through translator): Another benefit of the cereal bank is that it helps keep the price of grain down.

CHRIS REIJ: In a sea of difficulty, we find here examples where a surplus, a grain surplus, has been produced in the drought year 2011.

FRED DE SAM LAZARO: Throughout southern Niger, Reij says re-greening has increased food production by about 500,000 tons per year, enough to feed two-and-a-half million people.

The challenge is to scale it up for a population of 16 million and that sea of difficulty. It will require education, everything from farming know-how to account-keeping at the grain bank and access to family planning. Literacy is just 30 percent, and the average woman bears seven children, a rate that will triple the number of mouths to feed by 2050.

And the gains have yet to reach vast numbers of people, especially children like Amina with immediate, pressing needs. U.S. Ambassador Williams is optimistic Niger can make progress over the long term, also that a catastrophe can be avoided from this year’s famine. But she says it won’t be easy.

BISA WILLIAMS: There are at least 15 percent of children under 2 that are really, really hungry. So you are right. There is no magic bullet. It’s not — this is not something that has a quick fix to it. Development by its nature is a long-term process.

Everyone knows that this can’t be resolved by the internationals. They are going to have to be embraced and be local. And I think that is what we are seeing in Niger.

FRED DE SAM LAZARO: For his part, President Issoufou says he’s acutely aware of Niger’s chronic neediness and of so-called donor fatigue.

MAHAMADOU ISSOUFOU (through translator): I understand why donors would be tired of supporting our population. We ourselves are tired of needing the help, of not being able to feed our own people. For us in Niger, it’s a matter of shame not to be able to feed our children. That’s why we say, please, don’t give us fish to eat. Teach us to fish for ourselves.

That’s why we need to escape from emergency aid. We need to help our population produce and provide for itself.

FRED DE SAM LAZARO: Niger does have a reason for hope. Remember the 1975 satellite picture? This is a more recent one from 2005. Chris Reij says Niger has grown 200 million trees over the past two decades, the only country in Africa to have actually added forest cover to its land in this period.

JUDY WOODRUFF: A version of Fred’s story aired on the PBS program “Religion & Ethics Newsweekly.” His reporting is a partnership with the Under-Told Stories Project at Saint Mary’s University in Minnesota.

Online, Fred filed a blog about his reporting trip to Niger. In it, he examines what makes this famine different from previous hunger crises. That’s on the Rundown page on our website.