In Niger, sanctions, flight disruptions squeeze UN aid stocks

By Alessandra Prentice

DAKAR (Reuters) – Niger’s military coup is hampering United Nations’ humanitarian efforts in one of the world’s poorest countries as border and airspace closures have cut off supplies of medicine and food, a U.N. official said on Tuesday.

U.N. aid agencies are scrambling to eke out depleting stocks just as regional sanctions potentially increase the number of people in need, the U.N. humanitarian chief in Niger, Louise Aubin, warned.

Any humanitarian cutbacks could have devastating impacts in Niger, which has one of highest rates of child mortality in the world and whose rural communities have been hit by a deadly Islamist insurgency.

Over 4 million people were already targeted for U.N. emergency assistance before the July 26 power grab.

“The risk is that we start running out of assistance materials to be able to help out people – I’m talking about simple things that are so life-saving,” Aubin told Reuters, listing food, vaccines and cash as areas of concern.

“Some people will soon be feeling the pinch of this … More than the 4.3 million people we had planned on supporting through emergency humanitarian assistance, we might see that number growing and growing fast.”

Aubin said flights operated within Niger by the United Nations Humanitarian Air Service (UNHAS) had been disrupted but not suspended by the junta’s decision to close its airspace in response to the West African regional bloc’s threat of possible military intervention.

But that and the closure of land borders under sanctions imposed by the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) means the outlook for replenishing stocks in Niger is uncertain, she said.

“There are no flights coming in at the moment. So that is becoming an issue,” she said. “Being able to mobilize food means obviously being able to bring in food from the outside.”

It was not immediately possible to determine how long stocks of food products or vaccines would last, but “these are quickly depleted because these are regular operations to be able to reach people in need.”

U.N. agencies in Niger including the World Food Programme, its children’s agency UNICEF, and the UNFPA population fund are contingency planning to keep operations on track despite the looming shortages.

The junta has warned Nigeriens to brace for challenging weeks and months ahead as it vows to defend itself against possible attack.

The threat of military escalation poses a further risk to humanitarian operations.

“The people of Niger are likely to suffer more and so we need to be able to respond very, very strongly,” Aubin said.

(Editing by Edward McAllister and Bernadette Baum)