Crews unloaded boxes of high-energy biscuits from a cargo plane early Sunday as thousands of tons of food aid gradually arrived in this famished West African nation, thanks to recent surges of donations.
After months of little international response to growing food shortages, contributions have begun flowing, and so too finally has food.
The boxes of biscuits were flown in from Italy. A caravan of trucks carrying rice made their way up from Lome, the capital of Togo, where aid workers were also expecting a shipload of corn.
The 38,000 tons of food expected to arrive over the next two weeks will be 12 times more than what previously had been available, said Stefanie Savariaud, spokeswoman for the U.N. World Food Program in Niamey, Niger's capital.
"We're getting closer to having the situation under control," Savariaud said by phone. She cautioned that it would be weeks before enough feeding centers were open to reach the estimated 2.5 million people in need of food aid.
The donated foodstuffs are expected to bolster supplies at major feeding centers and enable aid workers to fan out to rural villages to reach those too weak to walk to towns and cities, U.N. officials said. Feeding centers also plan to begin offering free food to a wider range of people, moving beyond mothers and young children who were initially targeted.
The inflow of aid, however, will not immediately curb the growing food crisis here, especially among children. The recent arrival of seasonal rains is producing a spike in diseases such as malaria and diarrhea among children, adding to the burden at hospitals already overwhelmed by severely malnourished children, aid workers say.
In the Maradi area of southern Niger, among those hardest hit, Doctors Without Borders treated 719 children three weeks ago, 939 two weeks ago and 1,239 last week. The medical aid group said the upward trend showed no sign of easing, and 5 percent of those seen by doctors were already so sick that they were not expected to survive.
"We have more and more admissions every week," said Mego Tarazian, a physician with Doctors Without Borders, speaking by telephone from Maradi. "We are overloaded."
In the best of times, this poor, dry, landlocked nation barely has enough food to feed its 11.7 million people. Less than 4 percent of the land -- nearly twice the size of Texas -- is considered arable. Droughts are common and cash-generating exports are few. An attack of locusts last year only added to the strain.
Children are especially vulnerable. One quarter of children in Niger die before their fifth birthdays.
Televised images of skeletal children with sunken chests and distended bellies jolted world leaders into action, six months after the U.N. World Food Program began making appeals to donor governments. Even as G-8 leaders pledged to double aid to Africa last month, hospital wards in Niger were filling with malnourished children.
UNICEF estimates that there are 200,000 malnourished children in Niger, 32,000 of whom are severely malnourished. Rima Salah, the deputy executive director for UNICEF, said she watched one child die in a hospital in Maradi on Friday.
"The international community shouldn't be allowing children to die when we have all the technology, all the resources to save children," Salah said by phone from Ouagadougou, the capital of neighboring Burkina Faso, where she traveled after spending four days in Niger.
Over the past two weeks, donors have pledged $22.8 million to the World Food Program. U.N. officials meanwhile have increased their appeal, saying that Niger needs $57.6 million, as costs grow sharply now that rainy season has made transport far more difficult on Niger's meager road network. Together with two other U.N. agencies, the total request from international donors is for $80 million.
Similar problems are growing in several other West African countries, including Mali, Burkina Faso and Mauritania. Across the region, food shortages threaten 4.2 million people, aid agencies estimate.