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Surviving the Sahel hunger crisis

Niger, May 18, 2012

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  <span class="field-credit">
    Cassandra Nelson/Mercy Corps  </span>
    In Niger, only 12% of the land is arable and over 80% of the population lives on agriculture, making rain a matter of life or death. But changing weather patterns have brought drought in more recent years than not. Warning systems throughout the parched region indicated an impending food crisis late last year when crops failed due to dry conditions and insect infestations. Photo: Cassandra Nelson/Mercy Corps
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  <span class="field-credit">
    Cassandra Nelson/Mercy Corps  </span>
    The U.N. estimates that one million children in Niger will require treatment for acute severe malnutrition this year. In the Tillabéri region, the hardest hit area in the southwest of the country, the acute malnutrition rate is already over 14%, with children under 5 the most affected. Photo: Cassandra Nelson/Mercy Corps
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  <span class="field-credit">
    Cassandra Nelson/Mercy Corps  </span>
    Millet is the main staple of the diet in Niger. In many parts of the country, the harvest failed completely, leaving poor subsistence farmers with no grains to feed their families. Here, Zeynabou explains that the millet she harvested did not have any seeds to eat, so she is trying to make use of the stalks to build a fence. Photo: Cassandra Nelson/Mercy Corps
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  <span class="field-credit">
    Cassandra Nelson/Mercy Corps  </span>
    Across the Sahel — the semiarid region south of the Sahara Desert that encompasses Niger, Mali, Mauritania, Burkina Faso and Chad — nearly three times as many people are at risk of starvation as those affected by the famine in Somalia last year. Not even two years old, Ali (pictured here) was diagnosed with severe acute malnutrition at a hospital in Filingue, Niger. He died the day this picture was taken. Photo: Cassandra Nelson/Mercy Corps
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  <span class="field-credit">
    Cassandra Nelson/Mercy Corps  </span>
    This is just the beginning of what many people are predicting to be one of the worst food crises in recent history in Niger. Families are resorting to eating wild plants and the leaves of trees, all which lack significant nutritional value, just to kill the hunger pangs and hopefully staunch their children’s crying. Photo: Cassandra Nelson/Mercy Corps
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  <span class="field-credit">
    Cassandra Nelson/Mercy Corps  </span>
    Most of the able-bodied men have left the rural villages in search of work in larger towns and the capital city, Niamey. Women are left to care for the children and spend their days foraging for food. Most mothers only eat once every day or two. They skip meals so they can give the food to their children. Photo: Cassandra Nelson/Mercy Corps
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  <span class="field-credit">
    Cassandra Nelson/Mercy Corps  </span>
    A school headmaster in Oullam noted that at least a quarter of his students have had to drop out since January, when the food crisis began. “The girls have been the most affected in this crisis, as they are typically responsible for filling their mothers’ role now that the women have to forage for food daily.” He predicts that the number will dramatically increase in the coming months as the situation worsens. Photo: Cassandra Nelson/Mercy Corps
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  <span class="field-credit">
    Cassandra Nelson/Mercy Corps  </span>
    Lauretta, 12 years old, was forced to quit school, so she could stay home and look after her younger brothers, collect fire wood, fetch water, cook and clean. Her mother managed these household duties before, but now she must be away from dawn until dusk looking for food. Photo: Cassandra Nelson/Mercy Corps
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  <span class="field-credit">
    Cassandra Nelson/Mercy Corps  </span>
    Mercy Corps has been working in Niger since 2005 and has trained 101 teams of Community Health Workers to conduct the nutritional screenings that identify malnourished children and help them get assistance. As the food crisis grows, so too does the number of mothers coming to have their children evaluated. They wait in over 100-degree heat for hours to see the health workers. Photo: Cassandra Nelson/Mercy Corps
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  <span class="field-credit">
    Cassandra Nelson/Mercy Corps  </span>
    Mercy Corps health care workers measure the circumference of a child’s arm and apply a simple equation using the child’s age, weight and height to diagnose malnutrition. If diagnosed as moderately or severely malnourished, they are referred to health centers to receive PlumpyNut, a special food formula developed for malnourished children. Mercy Corps has provided a three-month supply of PlumpyNut to 39 health centers in Niger. Photo: Cassandra Nelson/Mercy Corps
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  <span class="field-credit">
    Cassandra Nelson/Mercy Corps  </span>
    In addition to providing immediate aid, Mercy Corps believes it’s vital to invest in ways to stop the cycle of hunger from recurring. Our new cash-for-work projects allow people to earn money and buy food locally while preparing their fields for a better harvest season. These crescent ditches will allow rain water to soak into the land rather than running off and causing flooding and erosion. Photo: Cassandra Nelson/Mercy Corps
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  <span class="field-credit">
    Cassandra Nelson/Mercy Corps  </span>
    Prior to this new food crisis, Mercy Corps supported urban populations in Niger that were among the most affected by the rise in global food prices, revitalizing an important dairy value chain in urban Niamey. Mercy Corps’ support to women entrepreneurs became one of the most successful components of this program. Of the 2,556 individuals who received grants for dairy-related microenterprises, 97% were female. Photo: Cassandra Nelson/Mercy Corps
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  <span class="field-credit">
    Cassandra Nelson/Mercy Corps  </span>
    As a result of the dairy program that Mercy Corps managed, poor families — many of them female-headed — now have an income as well as improved access to milk, yogurt and cheese. Photo: Cassandra Nelson/Mercy Corps
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  <span class="field-credit">
    Cassandra Nelson/Mercy Corps  </span>
    Mercy Corps is also working in rural villages in Niger to build resilience so communities can increase their food supply and weather future droughts. We have helped people repair wells and establish community gardens that are resources to draw on for years to come. Photo: Cassandra Nelson/Mercy Corps
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  <span class="field-credit">
    Cassandra Nelson/Mercy Corps  </span>
    Villages that have received Mercy Corps training and initial seeds to build community gardens are faring much better than other villages in the region that have not. They have a wide variety of produce they can use to feed their families, as well as excess to sell in the local markets. More widespread assistance is still desperately needed, but it is equally important to continue work on solutions like this that have a lasting impact. Photo: Cassandra Nelson/Mercy Corps

More than 6 million people in Niger do not have enough to eat this year. The first signs of a dire food crisis began converging months ago: drought, failed crops and inflated food prices. Now, as the country approaches its traditional lean season, at least 3.5 million people are at serious risk from severe hunger and are in need of immediate humanitarian assistance.

Mercy Corps is distributing emergency cash so families can buy food to eat and has built resources that people are drawing on to survive until the next harvest. How did we get here — and what more can we do to help bring families back from the brink of famine?