“Empty” increasingly describes villages around the southern Niger town of Tanout in Zinder Region: Water wells and pastures, fields and food banks - and slowly - entire villages, are emptying.
Of the 42 families in the village of Garin Dagabi, 13 have left in search of money, along with the heads of 20 other families.
During a typically four-month rainy season, the village had two good rains, said its leader, Issouf Boukary. “During the first rain, we planted millet, which started to grow… but then the entire harvest dried up.”
Insufficient rains nationwide led to a 31 percent slump in crop production compared to last year - 410,000 tons less - according to the government’s latest estimates.
Per-capita gross cereal production for Niger’s 15 million people is likely to be the lowest in 20 years, with more than half the country facing production deficits similar to those in 2004 that contributed to the country’s 2005 food crisis, according to the US famine monitoring group, FEWS NET.
The government has estimated that poor rains have forced some two million people to finish off their food reserves seven months before the next harvest. Another five million may soon follow.
A cereal bank set up three years ago in Garin Dagabi with 10 tons of cereal now has only three tons remaining. “We have a little money in the bank to buy other sacks [of millet], but at current [elevated] prices [in Zinder], we would have to go far to be able to afford it,” Boukary told IRIN.
It is not much better in the nearby village of Gouragass where farmers harvested about 10 percent of the millet, sorghum and beans they typically grow. “In a normal [rain] year, we can cover 9-10 months of our [food] needs, but this year was really bad: We did not get even one month of food after the harvest [October 2009],” said village chief Alhadji Idi.
A government distribution of 140 tons of millet in October 2009 to nine villages in the region is long gone. Remittances have done little to cover the gap, as in the past, both village chiefs told IRIN.
“The village has not known a situation this difficult since [the 1984 food crisis]. Even  was not this bad. And the hardest part is only beginning,” Idi told IRIN. Villagers have cut in half how much they eat, he added.
Photo: Anne Isabelle Leclercq/IRIN
|A traditional well near the village of Gouragass, near Tanout in Southern Niger|
Nigerien sociologist Issouf Bayard, originally from Zinder, told IRIN that 1984 was a pastoral and agricultural crisis, whereas 2005 was primarily agricultural.
“Now in 2010 we have agricultural and pastoral problems, plus a population that has doubled in size and health epidemics we did not have two decades ago.”
It will take some US$166 million to avoid a food crisis in Zinder, according to the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA).
With food prices on average 30 percent higher in December in Zinder than in previous years, according to Belgian NGO Aquadev, households are turning to a wild weed known locally as ‘jiga’ - normally the fare of camels and locusts.
“Jiga is a famine food,” the local Agriculture Ministry director, Yacouba Adjaharou, told IRIN. “People normally eat it in small quantities. When they start eating more of it so early [in the season], it is a sign of hard times.”
Families are selling their cows - including pregnant ones and calves - to afford food, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO). “This phenomenon is a sign of crisis, as a breeder would never sell his cow that recently gave birth if he were not in serious difficulty,” FAO emergency programme officer, Nourou Tall, told IRIN.
Malnourished animals and weak demand from Niger’s biggest customer, Nigeria, whose currency is worth less this year against the French franc (CFA), have reduced asking prices by up to half.
“Before, we could sell a ewe for at least US$42 and now we only get half as much,” said Gouragass chief Idi.
Poor rains have worsened the shortage of hay - estimated at five million tons in 2008 by FAO - used as animal feed. This year, there is only enough for one-third of Niger’s cattle.
Even that will last at most another two months, according to a recent discussion hosted by FAO for groups working on food security. “The situation will be very critical starting in April,” FAO’s Tall told IRIN.
The government estimates an additional shortage of 32,000 tons of animal food, such as corn, of which FAO will provide 8,450 tons. Most will go to the most easterly region of Niger, Diffa, followed by Zinder.
Meanwhile, residents with no cattle are digging deeper - literally - to find cash, by selling anything that can be transformed into animal feed or firewood. “Because so many trees have been cut down, people are digging two to three metres to unearth the roots of large trees,” said Souleymane Roufaï Kane with Tanout Department’s Ministry of Agriculture.