Hunger is a chronic problem in both Chad and Niger, two of the world's poorest countries. With large nomadic populations whose livelihood depends on their herds of camels and cattle, both countries have suffered severely from droughts. Chronic malnutrition threatens tens of thousands of children who lack access to clean water, preventative health care. and sufficient quantities of nutrient rich foods. The droughts have devastated livelihoods of both farmers and pastoralists in the Sahel, an arid and semi-arid region, sweeping through both countries that is chronically food insecure. On a recent field visit to the two countries where I was accompanied by Cristina Amaral, Africa Director of the United Nation's Food and Agriculture Organization's (FAO) Emergency Response Unit and Africa-based representatives of USAID's Office of Food for Peace, I witnessed the efforts of FAO and the World Food Program (WFP), both of whom receive valuable financial support from USAID, in tackling the impacts of the drought on the most vulnerable populations. In addition to supporting the recovery of drought-affected households, both organizations are now using their resources in a more preventative fashion -- in order to get at the root causes of the high levels of malnutrition in a more integrated fashion.
For example, in Chad, water is a huge priority. Along the western border with Niger, in Kanem, Chad, many families travel 5-10 kilometers or more to meet their water needs and those of their livestock. Farmers are very vulnerable to the area's recurring climatic shocks. While I saw many dry shallow wells, wells in the "wadis" -- oasis-like patches in the Sahel, still had ample water. In Chad and Niger, FAO and WFP work together to increase production of nutrient rich foods in the wadis, which are capable of supporting agriculture production. Combining the introduction of technologies such as drip irrigation, water harvesting, and man-power driven pumps with distribution of improved seeds, FAO identified specific vitamin-rich crops whose production could be increased and greatly augment local diets. I witnessed an explosion of production in tomatoes, peppers, eggplants, even broccoli, that was now available to diversify the local diet which is heavy in grains. Women farmers were prioritized for assistance as frequently they were heads of large households. The women I talked with were excited about the new crop diversity and thankful for the extra food which went primarily to feed chronically malnourished children at home. FAO also targeted women leaders to receive training on how to increase their income through the marketing of production surpluses.
In other sites in Kenem, WFP's USG-supported food for work activities expanded water access and agricultural land. Wadi development -- with year-round water, farms of dates, and flourishing fruits and vegetables in an otherwise arid area -- was seen by many as an important food security intervention.
In Niger, cereal banks are one of the solutions for long-term food sustainability. The WFP/FAO-supported cereal banks help to ensure the availability of food during the lean period and equal access to grain for all, especially the most vulnerable. NGO partners guide local committee elections, trainings and cereal bank construction, empowering the whole community, especially women, to manage their own food supply. In Diskir, I talked with the Tuareg women leaders who had been selected to manage their new cereal bank. The women explained how they used funds provided by the UN agencies to launch their initial efforts to build resiliency among local farmers and their families. The women of Diskir used to worry about how they would feed their families during the lean season. The joint FAO-WFP-initiated cereal bank I saw has changed that -- and led to a new-found confidence.
Hundreds of thousands of people live in areas in Chad and Niger that are affected by recurring droughts. These people are still recovering from the effects of the 2009-2010 drought crises. Despite the worrying food security situation, both Chad and Niger have seen improvements thanks to the efforts of these two United Nations Organizations. In collaboration with local governments, FAO and WFP activities are strengthening the agricultural and pastoral livelihoods of vulnerable farmers and their families. With U.S. support, the UN activities reinforce the purchasing power of the most vulnerable and build their resiliency enabling them to better secure their livelihoods.