By Omair Ali

Source: UNICEF Niger//YouTube

Like many nations around the globe, Niger is struggling to address many of its ongoing challenges during the pandemic-driven economic meltdown. Before the pandemic struck, many Nigeriens were already struggling to meet their most basic needs, but the economic effects of COVID-19 have made the situation more dire. Perhaps Niger’s most significant challenge right now is not the virus, but the hunger crisis that the pandemic response has unintentionally worsened.

Food production has always been a difficult undertaking in Niger due to its semi-arid climate and extreme weather patterns like long-lasting droughts that make agriculture challenging to sustain [1]. Over the centuries, Nigeriens have found ways to adapt to their climate by growing hardy crops, including root vegetables, millet, sorghum, rice, and beans [2]. Despite the remarkable resilience of Nigerien farmers, the year’s extreme circumstances have made it impossible for Niger to meet the nutritional needs of its population in 2020. According to a report by the Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations (FAO), the travel restrictions implemented by the Nigerien government this past spring significantly disrupted food supply chains and agricultural commerce. As a result, this years’ food crisis was exacerbated, leaving many communities extremely vulnerable to famine [3]. Even though travel restrictions have now been eased and new investments are being made to promote agricultural entrepreneurship in severely under-resourced Nigerien communities [4], the FAO report indicates that the pandemic has already disrupted critical periods of the growing season, which will ultimately reduce overall food production.

The Nigerien health infrastructure is currently supported by agencies that include Niger’s Ministry of Health, the World Bank, UNICEF, and Doctors Without Borders. These agencies are addressing not only the COVID-19 outbreak but also the rise in malnutrition during the “hunger gap” – a period in the summer when food stocks have been completely used up, and acute food insecurity is prevalent [5],[6]. However, due to the pandemic, it is likely that the “hunger gap” will be much worse this year and possibly next, as food production has already stalled and border closures have delayed food deliveries, making it even more difficult to replenish food stores.

One of the most pressing concerns with food insecurity is malnutrition, Niger’s leading risk factor for disability and death [7]. Adequate nutritional intake encompasses sufficient caloric, protein, vitamin, and mineral intake. A lack of adequate nutritional intake accelerates disease processes and aging and can lead to an early death. Additionally, adequate nutrition is critical to childhood development, and malnutrition can have lifelong consequences like growth impairments [8]. Both UNICEF and the World Food Programme have predicted that in 2020, 15 million child cases of acute malnutrition will occur in six African countries, including Niger, which is up from its pre-COVID estimates of 4.5 million cases [9]. In other words, this year’s food insecurity will cause a massive spike in preventable deaths of children if food distribution measures aren’t scaled up to meet current supply needs. As FAO’s report suggests, the current demand is very far from being met.

Alongside adequate food access, access to safe water is equally critical for ensuring community health. The only water point available to many Nigeriens is open wells or groundwater, which is often contaminated. Contaminated water often leads to. severe cases. of diarrhea, which compound the effects of malnutrition that result from famine. Wells Bring Hope addresses this problem by working with Nigerien communities to drill wells that provide unlimited access to safe water, which is plentiful just 250 feet below ground. If you wish to fight malnutrition in Niger today, please consider donating to support Wells Bring Hope’s water projects.