NIGER: Getting food in by truck, boat, camel and cart
The Diffa-N'Guigmi road becomes nearly impassable during the rainy season
DIFFA, 17 August 2010 (IRIN) - This year again, Niger is short of food. Nearly half of the country’s 15.2 million inhabitants are facing hunger
due to failed harvests in 2009, according to the government.
The World Food Programme (WFP) estimates that more than 212,500 tons of food are needed between August and December to fill the food gap. But bringing food to families living in remote areas of the sandy landlocked country with few roads is an arduous task.
“During the rainy season [from June to October] there are areas such as Doro [in Diffa region] that are not accessible by road. To reach a few families, we have to use boats,” said Djibo Abdou Soumaïla, WFP’s assistant logistician in Diffa, one of the least populated and most isolated regions of the country, on the border with Chad.
Before reaching Doro, food spends months on the roads and high seas. It is likely to have transited through the ports of Cotonou, in Benin, or Lomé, in Togo, and the Niger towns of Diffa and N’Guigmi. It takes three to four months for internationally purchased goods to arrive in Niger. Food from neighboring countries makes it within two months.
Since the beginning of the year, WFP has purchased almost 70 percent of its 114,000 tons of food from nearby countries, including Benin, Mali, Nigeria and Ghana, thanks to surpluses in cereal and pulse production. Other products, such as cooking oil, supplementary food such as highly nutritious Plumpy’doz or enriched flour could not be bought locally.
“We had never bought as much from West Africa as this year,” said WFP country director in Niger Richard Verbeeck. “We have several specialists assessing prices and quality in various countries. Sometimes stocks have to be gathered from a number of spots.”
At WFP/government food storage facilities in the city of Diffa, storekeeper Saly Boubacar points at piles of food: “Malaysian [cooking] oil, Finish salt, American rice, Malian beans, and enriched flour from Belgium.” He explains that sometimes, delays with one item hold up distributions. “We had to wait for oil for a while,” he said.
Forty ton trucks take up to two weeks to drive 2,000km from Benin to Diffa, via Nigeria, WFP’s Soumaïla said.
Traveling across rivers and sand dunes
Getting food into the country is only the beginning of the task.
“Our role is to bring food to where people are,” said Etienne Tchenounnou, WFP’s programme officer in Diffa. “Even if there are only six families needing food in a very isolated area, we have to go there because we cannot ask them to travel 50km to pick it up.”
With the help of two private transporters owning 13 trucks, Tchecounnou and Soumaïla have to dispatch 820 tons of food in August. Some 75 tons have headed north, to areas around N’Guigmi, 130km north of Diffa. Less than two tons have to reach 17 families in the village of Blaharde, more than a 100km further north.
A road that used to be paved stretches from Diffa to N’Guigmi. “It becomes nearly impassable during the rainy season. Some parts are flooded; others have long lost their hard surface. It is especially difficult with loaded trucks, as they are likely to get stuck,” said Soumaïla. Drivers need a whole day to travel just over 100km.
From the stores in N’Guigmi, food is loaded again onto smaller trucks and then into pick-ups nearer Blaharde for the final stretch across sand dunes. Duration: A day - as long as the driver is experienced and the vehicle, reliable, said Soumaïla.
“But when drivers get stuck, it can take ages. There is often no phone network. If they are lucky, camel herders may come by and help them. Otherwise, they have to walk to the next village.”
Once the food finally reaches the village, families take it home by camel or cart - often kilometres away.
Food therefore has to be ordered well in advance. In July, WFP called for immediate support, after announcing a scaling-up of its operations on the basis of government surveys showing that the number of people affected by food insecurity was higher than previously estimated. A quick survey in April bumped up the number of severely food-insecure people from 2.6 to 3.3 million.
It was a race against time. “In order to have goods in time, we needed to purchase in the region,” said WFP’s Verbeeck.
But funding failed to materialize in time. WFP’s spokesperson in Niger, Vigno Hounkanli, now says a funding shortfall of US$88.2 million out of the requested $213 million is forcing WFP to limit its food distributions to only 40 percent of those in need. The government and other organizations, such as the UN Children’s Fund, Médecins Sans Frontières and the International Committee of the Red Cross have also been distributing supplementary food or food rations.
“Initial needs were underestimated,” said the head of the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs in Niger, Modibo Traoré. “There are always delays with disbursements and the response from donors was not sufficient.”