Fight to Survive in Niger

This blog is part of a series organized by The Huffington Post and the NGO alliance InterAction to call attention to the crisis in the Sahel, a region in sub-Saharan Africa where more than 18 million people face starvation and 1.1 million children under the age of 5 are at risk of dying from acute malnutrition. Click here to read more of HuffPost Impact's coverage of the Sahel and here to find out what InterAction members and others are doing in the Sahel.

It took Mohammed Icna 20 days to travel with his family 70 miles from Mali to Mangaize Refugee Camp in Niger.

"We came with nothing except ourselves and our three donkeys. The heat and the journey killed all three," 45-year-old Mohammed says. Traveling the last two weeks on foot, the family had to conserve energy, walking slowly and taking breaks to avoid the fate their animals suffered.

Like the Icna family, 320,000 people have fled Mali since mid-January, when clashes broke out between Tuareg rebels and government forces. This influx of Malian refugees into Niger has exacerbated the ongoing Sahel drought crisis and has strained communities already grappling with the region's third drought in just a decade.

Throughout the Sahel, from Chad to the Atlantic, the lack of rain, high food prices, displacement and chronic poverty are putting more than 18 million people at risk of starvation. According to the United Nation's Food and Agriculture Organization, drought has reduced overall cereal production in the Sahel by 26 percent as compared to last year, with the decrease reaching 50 percent in Chad and Mauritania.

When the rains didn't come on time, inhabitants watched helplessly as crops withered, animals died and the people themselves approached starvation. Having not fully recovered from drought in 2010, many communities in Niger have seen their struggles multiply as more Malian refugees arrive.

Supporting the swelling refugee community is placing tremendous strain on a country entangled in its own food crisis. Media attention has begun to attract foreign aid to the region, as nongovernmental organizations like Islamic Relief continue the kind of work they have quietly been doing for years.

To alleviate pressure on Niger, Islamic Relief is collaborating with UNICEF to distribute 10,000 liters of water every three days to more than 350 Malian families in Mangaize refugee camp. In addition, Islamic Relief's Cash Enhancement of Agricultural Production project, a cash-for-work program for vulnerable villagers, is helping to restore degraded farms and pastures. Islamic Relief has rehabilitated 30 community-managed cereal banks, where food is sold below local market price, enabling even the poorest to purchase locally when food is scarce. The organization also has constructed an 85-meter deep community borehole to provide clean water for 1,230 people in the village of Tilwa Yassi, with an additional 13 similar new or rehabilitated wells spread throughout the area.

Islamic Relief's Banne Beri Center for Women and Children provides nutrition training for women and nutritional services for more than 2,500 children. In Bibiyargou village, currently suffering 90 percent to 95 percent food deficiency, Islamic Relief is providing emergency food aid. Being one of the only humanitarian groups in the Tillaberi region, Islamic Relief is thus one of the only active aid outlets there. The ultimate goal is to implement food sustainability programs in communities so the local people can learn to leverage their resources efficiently and effectively, and prosper for generations to come.

Thousands of refugees have already made their way into Niger, and as many as 50 new families arrive every day, with many expected to follow. As the international community works to fulfill its commitment to those impacted by the Sahel's drought crisis, it must be recognized that in such a fragile ecological situation, all the countries in the Sahel must be provided assistance to stabilize and ultimately reverse their food deficits. As the Malian refugee crisis in Niger demonstrates, a humanitarian crisis in one Sahel state causes severe economic and humanitarian consequences for its neighbors -- consequences that may create a Nigerien refugee crisis, if the proper action is not taken.