DAKAR (AlertNet) - Amid urgent calls by aid agencies for help to tackle the hunger crisis gripping AfricaÂ?s Sahel region, scientists are urging donors and local governments to end the region's cycle of major food shortages.
Agriculture experts say promoting sustainable agriculture policies and technology can help prevent the need for costly emergency aid which this year may not reach all the needy in time.
This week the United Nations announced that it needed another $107 million to reach its target of $253 million to tackle the food and nutrition crisis in Niger where about half of the countryÂ?s population of 7.1 million people is facing severe food shortages.
"Aid can help to improve immediate food securityÂ?but what we need are policies and strategies that bring about structural changes in agriculture," said Mohamed Beavogui, director for West and Central Africa at the U.N.'s International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD).
"Until now, every time there has been a crisis we (the international community) have provided massive aid but we have not worked with the Niger government to put an end to these cyclical shortages," he said in an online press conference on Friday.
Niger, like other countries in the arid Sahel band south of the Sahara desert, experiences regular droughts and locust attacks, degraded soils and changeable rainfall patterns. This year's food crisis was triggered by poor rainfall in 2009, which destroyed harvests in many areas.
Government investment in irrigation, using water sources like the Niger River and Lake Chad, quality seeds and technologies to support farmers would prevent regular crop shortages, Beavogui said.
One technique which has boosted crop production - called fertilizer micro-dosing - involves farmers applying tiny amounts of fertilizer directly to the plant roots. It has increased millet grain yields in Niger by about 55 percent in tests, and could have prevented the country's current shortfall of 410,000 metric tons of cereals, said the International Crops Research Institute for Semi-Arid Tropics (ICRISAT).
"If only one quarter of Niger's farmers practiced fertilizer micro-dosing in 2009, the grain shortfall would have been erased," said Jupiter Ndjeunga an economist at ICRISAT in Niger. "This would have cost the country only a small fraction of the cost of food aid that is now needed," she added in a statement.
Many poor farmers, however, cannot afford these technologies. So the U.N. Food and Agricultural Organisation and other groups are setting up loan schemes to help farmers buy fertilizers.
Other technologies and projects promoted by scientists include low pressure drip irrigation, crop varieties that grow relatively quickly so they are more likely to escape drought, and effective management of granaries.
"Where there were well-managed cereal banks (this year), food shortages were delayed and these granaries were only depleted because people emigrating from other parts of the country had come and benefited from these resources," IFAD's Beavogui said.
IFAD is helping to refill village granaries, and providing inputs such as seeds and small tools for the upcoming planting season to help farmers recover from the current crisis and prevent another one happening next year, he added.
"If we (the international community) had done our work as we should, maybe we would not have reached this level (of crisis)," Beavogui said.
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