By Alastair Stewart
To the north of Niger, the creeping Sahara; to the south, oil rich and agriculturally lush Nigeria – this nation straddles the Sahel – dry, hot and cruel. It has suffered catastrophic droughts – 1974, 1984 and 2005. And now, another.
Five times the size of the United Kingdom, Niger is one of the poorest nations on earth with child mortality worse than Afghanistan. The absence of regular rainfall throughout 2009 has led to poor harvests, lack of grazing for animals and food reserves exhausted.
Hungry people have started adding "bitter" berries to their diet – this is survival food, normally unpalatable but when starving, the unpalatable becomes welcome – essential.
The tipping point, according to one expert is about a week away – 15 July. That is when the rainy season is expected. But the starving livestock may nibble away whatever green-shoots push through.
Ten leading aid agencies launched a joint appeal yesterday, warning that up to 10 million people across the eastern Sahel, faced acute hunger. The United Nations agrees, it says that the situation is of a magnitude not previously seen. Niger is at the centre of this crisis, with half of its population – 7 million people – going hungry.
The statistics, generally, for this West African country, are overwhelming – less than a third of the people are literate: boys spend on average five years in school; girls, just three. Two-thirds of the people of Niger live beneath the poverty line, 85 per cent on less than $2 – or £1 – a day.
But set that against these great ironies: Niger has uranium aplenty and sells it to France's burgeoning nuclear power industry. The fruits of this trade are hard to see. And there is oil, as in northern neighbour Libya. The partners are the Chinese who will begin production soon. Again, there is little hope the benefits of geological benevolence will bless these beleaguered people. Half of Niger's government budget derives from donor aid. The proceeds of its natural resources will benefit Paris and Beijing before Niamey.
Heading east, into the badlands, we pass acres of planted millet and the occasional pool of orange, muddy water from the recent short, sharp rains. Two glaring truths are evident: the curative, durable work can and is being done; but the vicissitudes of climate makes it all a gamble at the edge of survival.
The "swollen-tummy" syndrome may not have taken root everywhere yet but with real fears that the harvest of 2010 will be a frighteningly small affair. And by then, for thousands, it will be too late.
At a health centre in Goumbi Kano, established by the charity Care International, one of those taking part in the appeal, and part-funded by the Niger government, I meet two women who had walked 8km, with their malnourished babies, to see Dr Moustaphe Chaibou.
Hasana and Maimouna, and babies Farida and Saredja, have been regulars for six weeks.
"I have no milk. When the baby cries, I give her millet," Hasana says.
The babies are showing signs of improvement. They get their regular prescription of a "plumpy nut" product, antibiotics and anti-malarial drugs. Still frighteningly underweight for their age, the 17 -month old was still a babe in arms, the 10-month old like a newborn – both about 20 per cent under the expected weight for their ages.
They left their village after prayers at 5.30am and arrived at opening time, around 8am. Then they headed back before the noon heat.
I asked the doctor what would happen if the rains failed: "Catastrophe, désolé," he said in perfect French.
The drought of 2009 made the September harvest poor – what it yielded was cornered by speculators – poor people had very little to see them through and it is now gone. The "biscuit-barrel" grain stores are empty and have been for weeks.
It has already been a long, hungry wait ameliorated by aid workers, the World Food Fund and other UN agencies. But they have got their sums, by all accounts, badly wrong. They budgeted for 1.7 million hungry souls but find themselves $97 million short . The aid community say the numbers in need are closer to 7 million – and about 3 million are in desperate need now. The target, recently raised, was too low, the budget inadequate and still under-funded.
The people still have until September to wait for handouts and hope.
In 1973 the community of N-Guigmi hardly existed. It now has a population of about 15,000 – people who were driven there from a pastoral existence in the countryside by drought and famine to a town, and a new way of life.
It is a terrifying template for this country unless a lasting solution is found. Those souls gave up waiting and gave up hope.
We meet Ishan Ila Gamma, a widow with eight dependents, in Tajae Nomade village. "I used to have more than 30 animals," she says. "Now I only have one good one remaining. I have been forced to sell all the others at cheap prices. I was forced to go to the city, I beg and sell herbs."
Again, the people of Niger are playing the waiting game – waiting for rain and for an autumn harvest; waiting for the UN and the World Food Programme to get their sums right and attract the donations to pay for the food aid; or waiting for the world to add Niger to the desperate list of Ethiopia, Sudan, Eritrea.
Ahead the road disappears in a haze of wind-blown sand. But that, I am told, is good. Strong winds, lifting dry sand into the air, often foreshadows rain in the cold African night.
Hope through the haze.
But, alas, the prophesy was only partially true. It rained for 12 minutes. Half an inch below the surface, the earth was bone dry. Another false dawn in the scorching heat.
We drive on and see people tilling the barren soil around the tiny millet plants, laid down by a government that now, at least, admits there is a crisis. They bend in the wind, both plants and farmers. Many were former herds-people but their stock has long since gone, either starved to death or sold at rock-bottom prices for scant sustenance.
Mohammed Gusnam explains: "I used to have 100 animals – now just one. As herders we were like princes, proud. Now the pasture land is disappearing. And the village to me is a like a prison."
But this, for them, is a new life's work and a last throw of the dice. Because, in truth, they can "plough the fields and scatter" as much as they like but unless it rains, it is for nothing: reap, they will not. And, as if to underline that, the sprouts of millet get more stunted as we drive deeper into the dry-lands. They will not flourish even if it were to rain.
"We have gone two weeks without being able to cook anything, we are just waiting and hoping that the children send money," another man whose five children have left their village to seek work and food, says, adding: "The future is in God's hands, we are waiting for God."