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Niger averts food crisis but faces population boom

NIAMEY (Reuters) - Foreign aid covered 80 percent of Niger’s needs during this year’s food crisis, Nigerien officials say, but the United Nations has warned that the country must rein in its population growth to prevent further crises.

A girl carries a tray with vegetables on her head at a market in Calabar, Delta region, December 13, 2007. REUTERS/Akintunde Akinleye

A senior U.N. official said that population in the West African state, one of the world’s poorest, could swell from 15 million today to 50 million by 2050 if current growth was not reduced, which would ease pressure on the food supply chain.

After previous governments played down earlier crises, Niger’s military junta swiftly called for hundreds of millions of dollars in food aid for half of Niger’s population after rains failed to come, decimating crops and cattle.

“I can say that aid needs were 80 percent covered thanks to the efforts of the international community and the government,” Colonel Abdoul Karim Goukoye, spokesman for the junta that seized power in a February coup, said Sunday.

Aid groups assessed that Niger needed $358 million in aid for the period up to this year’s harvest starting now under way, and around $254 million was provided, according to U.N. figures.

A broader food crisis in Africa’s Sahel region is also easing as crops start coming in. But experts say more must be done to end the cyclical shortages, especially as climate change disrupts weather patterns.

Valerie Amos, the United Nations’ top aid official who visited Niger last week, said current population growth was far outstripping rising food production.

“There are recurrent food crises, but there is also a very high growth in population, which could go from 15 million today to about 50 million in 2050,” Amos said at the weekend.

“I don’t think Niger’s agricultural production, which is already vulnerable to climate change, can sustain this and so we need, amongst other things, better family planning policies.”

Experts say the Sahara Desert is advancing south by about 10 km per year, eliminating potential growing areas.

Across Africa, high population growth rates are undermining efforts to improve living standards and cut poverty rates. But birth control programs are particularly controversial in mostly rural, Muslim states like Niger.

Goukoye said the newly-created Nigerien food security agency, known as HASA, would develop short-, medium- and long-term policies to improve the situation.

These would include promoting high-value crops and irrigation, he said, without giving further details.

Niger has vast uranium reserves, but has struggled to implement existing plans to alleviate poverty and hunger.

Writing by David Lewis; Editing by Mark Heinrich