Aid is finally reaching tens of thousands of families in southern Niger who have survived mainly on wild leaves and fruit for the past six months.
The incoming civilian government has launched a cash-for-work programme covering 325 of the 354 affected villages in Magaria District (in the southern region of Zinder) to help the more than 200,000 people identified as food insecure, said Modibo Traoré, head of the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) in Niger.
Villagers had been left with almost nothing to eat after their sorghum and millet crops were devoured by leafhoppers in 2010.
"The government is paying for the 325 villages out of its own pocket while the remaining 29 villages are being covered by partner aid agencies," explained Traoré.
OCHA was among several agencies to have warned about the worsening situation in Magaria ahead of the traditional lean season which begins in May. Help had been delayed partly because of the transition from a military junta-backed government to an elected civilian government in April.
Traoré said about 120,000 people from vulnerable families have begun receiving US$2 a day for 60 days in return for helping to restore 10,000 hectares of pasture land in the district. "It is hoped that by the end of the 60-day period they [the villagers] would have built up [enough] resilience to carry on with the planting season when the rains begin in June," he added.
Magaria District is a tiny green belt near the border with Nigeria, where small farmers grow millet and sorghum which make up most of the semi-arid region's cereal production when rainfall patterns are normal.
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The UN World Food Programme (WFP) will start a country-wide feeding programme targeting all children under two in June. "That should cover any vulnerable children in Magaria District," added Traoré.
Niger is prone to recurring drought and regularly has high levels of malnutrition, especially in Zinder Region.
WFP, which began dispensing aid earlier in the region, is distributing nearly 500 tons of food to about 35,000 people identified as vulnerable in Magaria; 2,500 beneficiaries are being given $2 a day by a another cash-for-work programme till the end of May, said WFP spokesman Vigno Hounkanli.