Niger is now facing the worst hunger crisis in its history, with almost half the country's population in desperate need of food and up to one in six children suffering from acute malnutrition, aid officials say.
Malek Triki, West Africa spokesman for the United Nations' World Food Programme, said villagers in Niger are describing the situation as worse than in 2005, when aid organizations treated tens of thousands of children for malnutrition, and worse even than 1973, when thousands died.
"What they are saying is that this is the worst crisis in living memory," Triki said.
National surveys conducted in May and June in the drought-stricken country on the southern fringe of the Sahara desert indicate that 16.7 percent of children under the age of 5 are acutely malnourished. That is well above the 15 percent threshold used by the U.N. to declare an emergency, according to the WFP.
The WFP estimates that 7.3 million people — almost half the country's population — are in desperate need of food. In rural areas like Diffa, Triki says he spoke to numerous people who eat at most once a day.
"A woman I spoke to basically said, 'We're in a constant state of fasting. If we eat lunch, we cannot eat dinner. If we eat dinner, we cannot eat lunch.'"
It's unclear if people have begun to die of starvation, he said, and mortality figures are not available from either Niger's government or the U.N.
Aid workers, however, say that the high rate of malnutrition is obvious at the food distribution points. Many of the children "look stunted," said Triki.
Niger's government, now being run by a military council after a February coup ousted President Mamadou Tandja, had said it would provide more than 21,000 tons of food. In 2005, Tandja played down the food crisis, dismissing it as "false propaganda" used by the U.N., aid agencies and opposition parties for political and economic gain.
Niger has historically been susceptible to famine because the country is mostly not irrigated. The success of its agriculture is heavily dependent on rain and when the rains fail, so do the country's crops.
"This year was a double whammy," said Christy Collins, the country director for U.S. charity Mercy Corps, which opened its Niger office at the height of the 2005 crisis.
In most years, even if the country's primary crop failed, at least the secondary crops survived. This year there was so little rain that not only did the fields of millet not bloom, but the secondary greens used for animal fodder also failed.
That means that not only do villagers not have enough to eat, but their livestock have also died off. For many, animals are their only asset, so they do not have anything to sell to be able to procure food, she said.
Many have turned to eating berries and leaves considered inedible in normal times, said Lane Hartill, a Dakar-based spokesman for Catholic Relief Services who recently returned from Niger.
In the northern and central sections of the country, aid workers say the landscape is strewn with animal carcasses.
"I spoke to one woman who had three goats. Two of them died before she could reach the market," said Triki.
Those that are able to get their cattle to market are pocketing only a fraction of the cost of what their herd is normally worth because the animals are so skinny.
Hartill said he visited cattle markets where desperate farmers were selling off their emaciated cattle at rock-bottom prices to traders that come across the border from Nigeria.
At several of the cattle markets he visited, Hartill said the animals being sold were so weak they could not stand up. They were simply carried into the bidding area. Then their new owner carried them away.