Sahel: Fighting malnutrition with local food security and water management initiatives (IRIN, RFI, Reuters, BBC, ICRISAT)

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Almost half the people in Niger are suffering from malnutrition. On average, 6,000 children are registered in therapeutic feeding centres each week, according to UN’s Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Across the Sahel, aid organizations provide emergency relief. They also promote food security, plus initiatives on water and nutrition in the region.

In Burkina Faso, health workers train women on the nutritional value of local foods. Koné Blandine is a midwife and nutrition trainer with an NGO called Eau Vive. In Gorom-Gorom, northern Burkina Faso, she shows local women how to make porridge fortified with local foods such as tamarind, soumbala (a local bean), fish and baobab fruit. The women in turn teach fellow villagers. Communities who know the nutritional value of local food and can conserve and use it, are far less vulnerable.

Juste Hermann Nansi is Eau Vive’s country director in Burkina Faso. He believes that promoting local foods is a way to combat dependence. “The Sahel region regularly faces drought, water shortages and malnutrition, and this has meant almost perpetual outside assistance. That affects people’s mentality,” Nansi says. “If our approach proves effective, people will have less need for outside help to fight malnutrition.”

Across the Sahel, lack of water affects agriculture, hygiene and nutrition. Lack of water is caused by the climate as well as by poor infrastructure. Drip irrigation is one technique for using water more efficiently.

Helen Keller International, or HKI, is an NGO which plans to distribute household drip irrigation kits to 300 families in eastern Burkina Faso. These families are planting gardens to grow nutritious vegetables. Drip irrigation is not widely used in individual gardens, but is common in commercial ventures.

“… given the water shortages, we are introducing this technique for home gardens to continue encouraging families to grow and eat nutritious foods,” says Olivier Vebamba from HKI. Drip irrigation also conserves water. It uses 40 litres of water per day to irrigate a garden of 20 square metres. Mr. Vebamba says that the watering cans normally used by villagers would consume 240 litres for the same area.

Smallholders in Senegal have had success with drip irrigation kits. “With the watering cans, we couldn’t do more than one harvest per year. With this innovation, we can do as many as three, so our earnings are multiplied by three,” says Yamar Diop, a 73-year-old father of ten.

In Niger, the International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics, or ICRISAT, recommends fertilizer micro-dosing to improve yields during droughts.

Farmer Seydou Boubacar and his wife Zaina use the technique. They apply a good pinch of fertilizer directly to the plant roots. Since using the method, Mr. Boubacar has almost tripled his harvests and increased his wealth. “When I started micro-dosing in 2000, I had only two sheep, but today I have 20 sheep, 20 goats, two cattle and 10 donkeys,” he says.

Jupiter Ndjeunga works with ICRISAT. “If only one quarter of Niger’s farmers had practiced fertilizer micro-dosing in 2009, the grain shortfall could have been prevented,” he says.

Dov Pasternak is head of the Sahel program at ICRISAT. He says that food relief in Niger “… will cost millions, but how much is being spent on agriculture? I have a gut feeling the ratio is huge in favour of food relief,” he says.