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Alarming increase in malnutrition in Niger

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Millet reserves empty and land for sale

Last year's harvests were either scorched by the sun or ravaged by locusts. In the most affected areas of Tahoua and Maradi, over 90% were destroyed. The millet stores are now empty and the sorghum reserves are non-existent.

Now farmers are having to buy their food - and prices have exploded.

Those who do not have the means to buy in the markets are resorting to substitute products, such as anza, a small wild plant that bears a very bitter fruit which is only used during food shortages.

For farmers with livestock, the situation is also extremely critical: the only pastures left are tiny islands of yellowing straw surrounded by sand. The distances between these pastures are so vast that many animals do not have the energy to cross to them.

There is a significant lack of fodder, milk production has drastically dropped, and breeders have been forced to start selling their animals (young females included) in order to buy food. They are having to dip into their capital in order to survive even though livestock prices are currently very low in comparison to the cost of grain. Some farmers have had to start selling their land, a sign of extreme vulnerability.

One out of five children is at risk of malnutrition

In children under five, the degree of malnutrition can be measured by wrapping a cardboard bracelet around their upper arm (MUAC = mid-upper arm circumference). As indicated by instruments worldwide, red signals danger: an upper-arm circumference of less than 110 mm indicates severe ma lnutrition, which is the case of children in the Maradi nutritional programme. The orange zone (upper-arm circumference between 110 and 124 mm) corresponds to moderate malnutrition, and the yellow zone indicates an at-risk zone (upper-arm circumference of 125 to 124 mm.)

"In the villages we've visited, one out of five children is at risk of malnutrition," reports Arnaud, a logistician specialized in food security returning from an evaluation mission led by our teams. "There won't be any rain before May, and the pastures won't start producing until June. The first harvests won't be ready until September."

Without immediate intervention, these children are going to continue losing weight and risk entering the red zone: severe malnutrition.* We're already seeing an increase in the number of cases: since mid-February the number of weekly child admissions has gone from 170 to nearly 250. Three months before the usual critical period our centre has already reached its maximum capacity, even though outpatient treatment has significantly reduced the number of patients that need hospitalization.

Action is needed, and quickly

Our exploratory missions have confirmed that the situation is indeed very alarming, as reported by the local team. The Nigerien early warning system, which monitors food status on the national level, has already published very worrying data. Time is of the essence- we must act quickly. An additional MSF team will be departing within days to open two new severe malnutrition treatment centres. However, in order to ensure that the lack of harvest does not end up costing the lives of thousands of children, other aid organisations need to get involved immediately.

*A person is considered to suffer from moderate malnutrition when their weight/height ratio falls between 70% and 80% of the median. Severe malnutrition is indicated by a weight/height ratio below 70%. Global malnutrition encompasses moderate and severe cases.