The term "food security" has a different meaning according to where you are. In a rich country it means concern about the quality of the food on your plate. In a poor country it means uncertainty about whether there will be anything to eat at all. In Niger, one of the world's poorest countries, people are far more concerned about the availability of food than its quality. In some areas, particularly in August and September when one crop runs out and the next is not ready to harvest, people eat very little – some days nothing at all. When they run out of proper food, they eat roots. Every year many die of hunger in Niger. By Yann Legros
Yet income from the country's uranium reserves had once made people hopeful of economic and social development. Butlandlocked Niger has been hit by an unprecedented economic crisis that has ended almost all uranium mining activities. And it has suffered greatly from erratic climate over the last 30 years, with severe droughts in 1974, 1976 and 1983. There have been numerous international initiatives to prevent the population from being drawn into a spiral of worsening poverty – but it is African countries themselves that have launched the most innovative initiatives to fight starvation (with financial support from rich countries).
The Agrhymet centre in Niamey – the technical arm of the Permanent Interstates Committee for Drought Control in the Sahel (CILSS) – has developed a method for detailed analysis of food and farming risk prevention. It involves comparing databases, land surveys, agro-climatic models and satellite images. Most of Niger is desert and only a thin strip in the south can be farmed. Even here farming is difficult since rainfall is irregular, spread over a rainy season of two to four months, and overall rainfall has substantially decreased over the last 20 to 30 years.
For a short period every year there is a surge of farming activity in Niger to reconstitute reserves of millet and sorghum. The rest of the year is given over to raising stock and market
gardening. Particular attention is paid to building up village reserves in order to survive till the following crop. The most common technique for getting the crop off to a good start – despite light and localised initial rainfall – is to sow the largest possible area as soon as enough rain falls. If the first crop fails, farmers start all over again. As sowing is done by hand,
it involves a great deal of work – often with success. But bad years (when rainfall is low and infrequent) are a serious threat to crops and people’s survival. Farmers can still plant manioc, but it is a poor consolation. Sometimes low rainfall affects one area, yet nearby there is too much rain, aggravating contrasts within an administrative district.
In the worst cases (particularly when they recur), some regions are forced into debt. The only solution is to draw on reserves, and even to use seed grain set aside for the following year. With no other options, men leave for a year or two to look for work on the coast or in less desolate areas. The women, children and old people stay behind in the villages, destitute. Sometimes social and family structures break down altogether. From Maradi to Zinder, as the markets close in the evening, it is not unusual to see crowds of women and children gathering round traders as they pack up their goods, waiting to pick up any grain that has fallen on the ground.
To prevent recurrent disasters, the Agrhymet centre has started issuing early warnings. Drawing on the comparative data it collects, the report gives the authorities immediate warning of the situation in the fields. Agrhymet engineers can even identify areas at risk, demanding outside assistance, several weeks before the harvest. When this happens, local authorities and international bodies can initiate emergency measures in advance (release of national reserves, purchase of grain or rice abroad or planting of alternative crops).
Agrhymet engineers carry out field trips to check information and validate models. They travel slowly round the country, following predetermined transects. Using Global Positioning
Systems (GPS) they can locate crops and assess their development. They transfer the data to a map, which makes it easier to pinpoint areas at risk. Although the method is fairly effective, there are shortcomings. It is difficult for Agrhymet to obtain all the localised information it requires, crucial to drawing up detailed maps. Some local authorities exaggerate the gravity of problems and submit misleading data during surveys, in the hope of receiving aid. Rainfall, too, is hard to evaluate. When it is light and localised, it does not appear in the meteorological records. In contrast heavy rain can wash away recently planted seeds.
For all these reasons it is hard to assess food security in Niger. Although the problem is clearly a national one, intervention is often local and so affected by the balance of power at that level. There are now tools for assessing the future food supply. Although they are fairly accurate, they need to be perfected. In a country where people are used to coping with climatic disasters, and fatalism is common, the best information systems will never replace the determination to act by local, national and international authorities.