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Famine-struck Niger sees little reason to celebrate

media A mother carries her malnourished child into a feeding centre in the town … Reuters

Niger on Tuesday marked 50 years of independence from France - but instead of throwing a party, half of the country's 13.4 million people are facing famine. While the military junta has ordered low-key festivities, aid agencies are desperately working to get food and medicine to the needy.

The sombre mood in the country was reflected with few public events marking the independence milestone. Among them was a simple tree-planting ceremony on the outskirts of the capital, Niamey.

Cristina Amaral, the Food and Agriculture Organisation's chief of emergency operations for Africa, recently returned to Rome from Niger. She told RFI the drought crisis was triggered by a sequence of events.

Interview: Cristina Amaral, of the Food and Agriculture Organisation 03/08/2010 - by Christine Buckley Listen

“We are at the fringes of the desert – the Sahel has always had dry spells. What happened this year is that the dry spell was much more prolonged, and the harvest was very poor,“ Amaral said.

“So the pastoralists started to sell their animals for one-tenth of the price that they would usually. Plus there was no milk, an important component of the diet. And they were not able even to buy a bag of grain with the sale of an animal.”

General Salou Djibo, who took power in a coup earlier this year, called for agricultural reforms under the shadow of a famine that is threatening the lives of millions.

Djibo dedicated the celebration of independence from France to the "struggle against food insecurity by sustainable land management".

"Our goal should be radically to transform the system of agricultural production to definitively bring Niger out of the disastrous consequences of unreliable climate change and the cycle of famine," he said in a national broadcast.

The FAO's Amaral said that the military government has been responsive to the crisis.

“In fact, they have even triggered major changes also in the response of the international community,” she told RFI.

“But the aid to the region is not sufficient. From an appeal that was estimated at 348 million dollars, only 41 per cent of this amount was received.”

Niger is at the epicentre of a famine that has hit Burkina Faso, Cameroon, Chad and Mali, after the past year's insufficient or irregular rains left poor crops and a desperate shortage of cattle feed.

Amaral pointed out that although the situation in Niger is desperate, the country has been receiving more aid attention than in other parts of the Sahel.

“In Chad, we don’t have as much funding. And Chad is the same agricultural area,” she said.

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