Sahel: A Prisoner of Starvation
Big Hydro Hides its Role in Global Warming

November 27, 2006

Sahel: A Prisoner of Starvation
A Case Study of the 2005 Food Crisis in Niger
Anuradha Mittal & Frederic Mousseau / The Oakland Institute

In Niger, a child holds her baby brother. As a result of the food crisis, her family had to sell half their cattle to buy feed for the other half. Credit: World Health Organization
Last year, the world rocked to Live Aid concerts, and the Make Poverty History Movement celebrated developed countries' fresh commitments toward the International Development Goals, development assistance, and debt cancellation. Despite these noble sounding goals, chronic hunger continues to strike some 852 million people, killing nearly 6.5 million children each year.

United Nations estimates that 300,000 children under the age of five face the risk of death from malnutrition every year in Sahel alone-- which includes Senegal, Mauritania, Mali, Niger, Chad, and Burkina Faso.

In light of this ongoing crisis, the Oakland Institute's new report, Sahel: A Prisoner of Starvation? examines the 2005 food crisis in Niger to explain the cause of this chronic emergency and recommends strategies that can help make hunger in Sahel a thing of the past.

In 2005, Niger's poverty and widespread hunger hit the world news. Some 230,000 children under the age of five were treated by NGOs -- surpassing past records of relief intervention. And despite this effort, thousands of children died of hunger related causes. Intensive campaigning by international relief organizations triggered an international response in June 2005, after eight months of delay.

Along with France and the EU, United States was a major donor and provided $19 million, of which $13 million was in-kind food aid. It was too little, too late compared to the need, and by October 2005 subsidized sales and free distribution had covered only 22 percent of the country's food deficit.

The 2005 food crisis has been blamed on locust invasion and drought. However it cannot be singled out as an isolated episode in Niger's history -- hundreds of thousands of children require this type of intervention every year in a country where under-five mortality rate is the second highest in the world. Doctors Without Borders, an international humanitarian agency, has reported that it treated some 60,000 Nigerien malnourished children in their emergency program this year.

What is the cause of this chronic emergency? How have several decades of development programs failed to eradicate hunger and malnutrition? What needs to be done to end this cycle of poverty and famine? What if any are the obligations of the international community during these food crises? These are the key questions that Sahel: A Prisoner of Starvation? intends to answer.

In a departure from economic liberalization promoted by the international financial institutions as a solution to poverty and hunger, Sahel: A Prisoner of Starvation? finds the region reeling from a free market famine.

"Development policies dictated by the international financial institutions and rich nations have promoted deregulation of markets and cash crops as the silver bullet solutions to hunger. Niger's experience shows that relying on the market to solve food shortages leaves the poorest people hungrier and drives small farmers into further poverty while large food traders gain monopoly power," said Frederic Mousseau, the Oakland Institute's Senior Fellow and the co-author of the report.

"While there was food in the markets and Niger continued food exports in 2005, domestic food prices sky rocketed almost 150-200 percent. While 63 percent of the population lives on less than $1 a day, in July 2005 a Nigerien farmer paid more for more a kilogram of millet at the local market than a European or an American consumer paid for a kilogram of rice in the supermarket," he continued.

"Delayed response in providing aid and insistence of donor countries like the US to provide in kind food aid, does little to strengthen national economies and tackle hunger. The design of development policies has silently accepted the sacrifice of a whole segment of region's populationprimarily young children from the poorest families," said Anuradha Mittal, executive director of the Oakland Institute and co-author of the report.

"Sahel: A Prisoner of Starvation? is a reminder that there is more than enough food on the planet to feed every human being and to meet the standards set in international human rights law. It is time to apply these standards rigorously and relentlessly until all are free from hunger."

The report recommends both short-term and long-term solutions to combat hunger in the region. These include:

First tackling hunger requires that rich nations support small farmers in developing countries so they can provide for their own populations. Subsistence farmers who constitute 75 percent of the world's poor should be at the center of development policies. These policies should promote consumption and production of local crops raised by small, sustainable farms rather than encouraging the poor nations to specialize in cash crops for western markets. 78 percent of countries that report child malnutrition are food-exporting countries.

Second the fight against hunger needs to shift away from the free market ideology that has been driving development policies over the past three decades. No industrialized country has been capable of developing its agriculture without protective barriers. However, poorest farmers and consumers in the developing world have been deprived of such protection.

Third, more, not less aid for rural development is necessary. Policies that help affected countries develop their own agricultural sectors actually feed more people and decrease developing countries' dependence on aid programs in the long run. For instance, alternative agricultural development models such as agro-forestry projects in the Sahel have shown to yield lasting improvements in food security.

Several preeminent personalities including Jacques Diouf, Executive Director of the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations and Gordan Brown, British Chancellor, have called for a "Marshall Plan for Africa," including 100 percent debt relief and a boost in Western assistance to Africa.

A country like Niger with its annual budget of $320 million would be an ideal first recipient of funding from such a plan. When compared to over $360 billion the US has spent on the Iraq war, this is hardly a drop in the bucket. This plan, if implemented, would need to be non-conditional and non-paternalistic, if it were to be successful.

Sahel: A Prisoner of Starvation? is a publication of the Oakland Institute (, a think tank for research, analysis, and action whose mission is to increase public participation and promote fair debate on critical social, economic, and environmental issues in both national and international forums.

Some Country Facts on Niger

  • Niger was ranked the poorest country in the world, last out of 177 countries on the United Nations Development Program's Human Development Index in 2005.
  • Sixty-three percent of Niger's population is estimated to live on less than a dollar a day.
  • Social indicators are low: life expectancy is 44.7 years; the literacy rate is 17 percent; and Nigers under five mortality rate is the second highest in the world.

  • To download a copy of the report, click here..

  • To purchase a copy of the report, click here.

    Contact: Anuradha Mittal, (510) 469-5228;

    Battling Over Bubbles:
    Big Hydro Hides its Role in Global Warming
    International Rivers Network

    Dams like the massive Itaipu (on the Brazil-Paraguay border) may look clean and tranquil but, according to IRN, "tropical hydropower reservoirs can have a far greater impact on global warming than even their dirtiest fossil fuel plant rivals."
    A bitter debate has broken out in the scientific community over hydropower's contribution to global warming. A leading Brazil-based climate scientist calculates that startlingly high levels of greenhouse gases are emitted when water is released from the turbines and spillways of tropical dams. But hydro industry-backed researchers have fiercely attacked his work.

    In an effort to settle the debate, International Rivers Network released a report, just prior to the UN Climate Change conference in Nairobi (Nov. 6-25), calling on a UN science panel to determine hydropower's culpability in global warming.

    "It may seem counterintuitive, but tropical hydropower reservoirs can have a far greater impact on global warming than even their dirtiest fossil fuel plant rivals," says Patrick McCully, IRN Executive Director and author of the report. "The big-hydro lobby has consistently underplayed the scale of hydropower emissions and sought to discredit and silence independent scientists researching dams and global warming."

    Philip Fearnside, one of the world's most frequently cited scientists on global warming, estimates that, in 1990, hydropower dams in the Amazon caused between 3 and 54 times more global warming than modern natural gas plants generating the same amount of energy.

    The debate between Fearnside and hydro industry-backed researchers pivots on what happens to methane dissolved in reservoir water when it is released at a dam.

    Imagine a reservoir as a vast bottle of Coke. Everyone knows what happens when you shake a Coke bottle and open it. The same thing happens as water jets out of dam turbines and spillways -- the rapid expansion of the fluid creates a sudden release of gas bubbles.

    The surfaces of reservoirs also emit greenhouse gases. Emissions of carbon dioxide and methane have been measured from the surfaces of over 100 reservoirs around the world. These gases come from the rotting of flooded vegetation and from organic matter that flows into reservoirs over time.

    The scientists researching this issue (and most of the relevant work is sponsored by Brazilian and Canadian hydropower utilities themselves) agree that reservoir surfaces emit greenhouse gases. But the hydro-backed scientists downplay the significance of "degassing" releases and assert that the overall impact of tropical hydropower on global warming is not significant compared to fossil fuel power plants.

    "It is as if Phillip Morris were in control of all lung cancer research, or Exxon Mobil controlled climate research," declared McCully. "There is far too much at stake in this debate to allow Big Hydro to control the research agenda. Hundreds of millions of dollars in climate subsidies and carbon credits could be spent on projects which would both worsen global warming and destroy valuable ecosystems."

    The report is at

  • Patrick McCully, Executive Director, IRN, Berkeley, California: +1 510 213 1441 (mobile) +1 510 848 1155 (office),
  • Philip Fearnside, National Institute for Research in the Amazon (INPA), Manaus, Brazil: +55 92 3643 1822 (office),,
  • Tim Kingston, Communications Manager, IRN, Berkeley, California: +1 510 290 7170 (mobile) +1 510 848 1155 (office),

    For more information contact:

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