Niger’s nightmare can end

We cannot afford to wait for an onslaught of harrowing images of dying people to realise a humanitarian crisis is looming in Niger. Liam Horan reports from Niger.

THE mother, no more than 25 years of age, places her eleven-month-old son on the clinic table. Like a merchant unfolding her goods, she slowly peels away his clothing to reveal the full extent of the child's frailty: he is little more than loose-hanging skin and tiny bones.

He cries weakly, the effort clearly straining his feeble body. His face is creased like that of an old man.

To the untrained eye, he could surely survive no more than a week. Even in these grim times for the people of Niger, other distraught mothers stand back to allow this chronic case to be examined by the GOAL medical staff.

Even famine has a hierarchy of suffering.

The mother eyes bereft of hope mumbles something and the translator suddenly reveals that the boy is a twin.

The twin sister is passed through the crowd to the front of the queue and is also placed onto the table for examination. She looks marginally healthier than her brother. She might live for a fortnight.

As this sad story unfolds in Abala, a remote village four hours north of the capital Niamey, over 800,000 children all over Niger are in much the same boat. Some have more meat on their bones, but the spiral of hope is going downwards.

Anne Maguire, GOAL's Country Director in Niger, said: "It is impossible to know just yet the exact state of the 800,000 children, but all the indications are that many of them are in a very bad way."

The Niger disaster was one that was waiting to happen. When a plague of locusts and a bad drought struck the country last year, devastating the crops, the prospect of a famine in 2005 loomed large.

Food would run out for many families. There was no question of that. Niger sub-Saharan, baking hot, mercilessly poor it never has much food to spare, and this year it has lost what little it had.

"The World Food Programme estimate that 3.6m people are now facing dire food shortage in Niger," adds Ms Maguire. "GOAL, and other Non-Governmental Organisations, are working around the clock to stabilise the health and nutrition status of those 3.6 million people. We are rolling out feeding and medical programmes to target the worst affected first of all."

Their task is enormous. Niger is very hot and very poor. Famine is biting deep in isolated pockets all over the country. In many cases, road networks are bad and telecommunications virtually non-existent.

In other famines, starving families leave their homes and make for the big towns in the hope of finding food. This displacement has not happened in Niger they don't believe it to be worth their while.

Sandra Beattie, one of the GOAL nurses in the field, said: "This means we have to travel to numerous villages to carry out assessments of the children. It makes the job of finding affected people, and treating them, all the harder."

GOAL are now concentrating their efforts on Abala, and in the region surrounding the country's second biggest city, Zinder.

"We are planning to feed over 200,000 people in the Zinder area in the coming weeks. The aim is to give them enough food to get them through to harvest time in autumn," says GOAL'S Ray Jordan.

"If we can bridge this gap until autumn, millions of lives can be saved. But it will be no easy task because of the vastness of the country. It is a race against time."

There is also a conundrum at the heart of the Niger problem. The world tends to take notice only of television images of gaunt jaws, swollen bellies, forlorn faces, dry breasts, cupped hands, never-ending queues, and eyes drained of tears. Yet GOAL and others working in Niger are working to prevent matters coming to that point.

"The message we would like to send out is that a humanitarian disaster of this nature can be prevented here. There have been deaths already, and there will be more, but if we can get enough food and medicine out now, it will not be another Ethiopia 1984," explains Ms Maguire.

"Down the line, the international community needs to act to stop the nightmare of Niger from recurring again and again.

An international emergency response team must be set up to move into countries like Niger before problems get out of control and the international community must provide the financial backing to stop the situation deteriorating before the faces of starving children hit the TV screens back in Ireland again."

It may come too late for the dying twins of Abala if it comes at all.

Their battle is more immediate, a country's battle in microcosm.

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