Dakar — In an atmosphere void of information and full of insecurity, some aid workers fear a humanitarian crisis is emerging in the troubled northern region of Niger, where thousands of people are thought to be cut off, with limited access to food, healthcare and humanitarian assistance.
"We don't have hard facts at present that a crisis is ongoing but we do fear that the risk is there that a crisis may emerge," said Niger-based Frank Smit, West Africa humanitarian planning representative for Oxfam Novib, the Dutch arm of the aid organisation Oxfam International.
Since February, attacks led by ethnic Touareg in the northern Agadez region have killed at least 45 government soldiers. Both the government and the Nigerien Movement for Justice (MNJ) militia group have laid landmines. Bandits have profited from the lack of safety by attacking convoys travelling in the vast desert region of the Aïr mountain chain.
The UN Children's Fund (UNICEF) estimates that 23,000 people in 11 localities north of the regional capital Agadez are inaccessible by normal routes. With the help of local organisations, UNICEF has sent convoys of food and medicine to those areas, but in all but one, "we have no reliable information that the items have reached the people," said Guido Borghese, UNICEF's deputy representative in Niger.
According to SOS Iférouane, one of the local organisations delivering the items, a six-truck convoy of goods destined for the remote northern town of Iférouane has been blocked at the village of Timia for three weeks.
"People in northern Niger are in a very difficult situation," Idrissa Bahari, president of the SOS Iférouane Initiative, told IRIN. "Frankly, it's worrying."
Local and international organisations say the combined insecurity has deterred merchants from travelling to the north and brought commerce to a halt. The northern Agadez region depends on trade to buy grain and other products, like fuel - which farmers need for pumps to water their fields. Their income depends on the sale of their products in other towns, but such movement has ceased.
In what the UN considers the poorest country in the world, where 60 percent of the population lives on less than US$1 a day, prices for some commodities have doubled or tripled. A package of milk that cost 1000 CFA francs (US$2) more than a month ago now costs up to 2000 CFA francs, said priest Doamba Mathias, head of the Catholic Church in Agadez.
Floods this rainy season aggravated the economic situation for many families, washing away their fields and animals.
"A food crisis is occurring in many villages of the Aïr," said Ahmed Amani, mayor of the Dabaga commune, some 50 km north of Agadez. "The majority of the population is vulnerable."
The town of Iférouane has been without food for weeks, Bahari said, because the route there is littered with mines.
"We haven't really had any contact with them," he said. "But during our last contact three weeks ago, people said there was nothing left to buy in Iférouane."
In some cases, residents have fled their towns in search of food and security, travelling less-known routes by camel and leaving some villages completely empty, humanitarian actors say. In other cases, people are too scared of landmines to move.
"My main worry is people who are trapped in the area because they are poor people and they have nowhere to go," Oxfam's Smit said.
Access to health care
Reliable information is hard to come by, but aid agencies suspect the situation has had a negative impact on health in the region. In Iférouane, higher than normal rates of malaria and diarrhoea are emerging, said Bahari, who is also coordinator of Agadez activities for Cadev, the national branch of the aid organisation Caritas.
In the Agadez hospital, which normally admits between five and 10 cases of malnourished children a week, 54 children arrived in the last two weeks, he added.
"Every day, the rate of malnutrition is rising."
Results of a UNICEF survey released at the end of July found that acute malnutrition levels in the Agadez region had risen sharply in previous months to 17.5 percent of children - the second highest rate in the country.
Aid agencies say the insecurity has made access to healthcare more difficult. Three of the northern region's 44 health centres have closed, according to UNICEF's Borghese, and for the rest, "we don't know if they can function properly and if medicines are arriving."
The organisation Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) suspects the current situation has reduced people's movement and the supply of medicine. It has thus opened a program in Dabaga to supply medicine, medical care and logistical support to the commune's health centre and hopes to better assess the impact of the region's insecurity on the health of its people over the coming months.
Culture of uncertainty
Little information is available about the condition of people living in the region because foreign journalists have been prevented from entering the north and local journalists discouraged from reporting on it. The few aid agencies working in the region are hesitant to say anything that might upset the government and hamper their relief operations.
Many agencies have reduced their operations or pulled out of the region altogether. But SOS Iférouane's Bahari said the insecurity should not scare aid agencies away.
"It's one more reason to help the people who are in a very serious situation," he said. "We've been ringing the alarm bell for a long time... Every day, the situation risks getting worse."
[ This report does not necessarily reflect the views of the United Nations ]