When I wrote back in January that we need to talk about the risk of famine in Niger, I had no idea then that an already very complex situation was about to see yet another twist in the tale develop.
Since then, thousands have left Mali for neighbouring Niger to escape the conflict between the Tuareg liberation movement MNLA local militia and government forces, leading to a growing humanitarian crisis particularly in the northwestern region of Tillabéri where food security is extremely precarious.
In the hot and dusty village of Gaoudel in Ayorou district, an influx of largely Tuareg refugees means that the community's scant resources now have to stretch even further and aid agencies are having to redouble their efforts in the wake of this new development.
It's a two day journey on foot across the desert to Gaoudel and many of the refugees arrive with just the clothes on their back and a few sheep or goats. Plan, along with other international charities, is distributing essential food items like oil, beans, millet and rice together with mosquito nets and blankets. We've also been registering Malian refugee children in local schools to avoid them dropping out altogether. School abandonment rates are noticeably on the increase in Niger as a whole with children being sent long distances away to work for money or food to supplement their family's income or supplies.
Because of its geographical location, it can sometimes feel like Niger, which has always been right at the bottom of the UN Human Development Index, is a repository for many of West Africa's problems. As well as experiencing the knock-on effect of Mali's troubles, another neighbour's recent woes are compounding matters. The Boko Haram attacks in Nigeria have led to the closure of the border with Niger for fear that the militant group may attempt to extend its influence. But the resulting restricted movement means that the livestock markets in Niger have lost some of their key customers and already down on their luck pastoralists are bearing the brunt.
And then there's the fallout that has been caused by some 200,000 migrant workers returning to Niger from Libya and Côte d'Ivoire in the aftermath of last year's violence in both countries. The impact is twofold: relatives have lost the cash transfers that they previously relied on and already reduced food supplies now have to feed even more mouths.
As the "hungry season" approaches once more, it is the most vulnerable groups in society such as young children who are at greatest risk of acute malnutrition which can lead to developmental delays throughout childhood and adolescence, often leaving the young unable to maintain growth, resist infections or recover from disease.
According to the head of Tillabérri's intensive therapeutic feeding centre, malnutrition rates usually peak in June but this year it is expected to occur as early as April given that many families have no more than a month's supply of food to last them until the next rainy season.
With the spectre of chronic malnutrition in children once again on the horizon, Plan is stepping up its support and sending a team of health workers to 120 villages in Tillabérri to identify severe malnutrition in young children and treat or refer them as appropriate. In the meantime, we have absolutely everything crossed that the fates have no further calamities in store for Niger.
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