NIAMEY : More than 2.5 million people in Niger are suffering from food insecurity because of a shortfall in the cereal harvest due to bad weather and crop pests, the agriculture minister said Saturday.

‘A survey conducted since December 2014 indicated that 15.7 percent of the population, or 2,588,128 people, are in a situation of food insecurity, including 410,297 in severe insecurity,’ Maidagi Allambeye told MPs. The situation has been aggravated by the presence of some 200,000 refugees who had fled attacks by Boko Haram and other militants.

Food insecurity in the poor Sahel country, which is plagued by recurring food crises, is linked to a cereal deficit of more than 230,000 tonnes at the end of the 2014 crop year, he explained. The government attributed the shortfall to drought, floods and caterpillar attacks.

‘We cannot say that Niger is suffering chronic insecurity but this is still very common,’ said Vigno Hounkanli, a spokesman for the World Food Programme in Niamey, which has helped some 480,000 people since June. ‘We are distributing food from the lean period onwards, when the granaries are empty and there is nothing to eat,’ he said.

The lean period between the depletion of the previous year's crops and harvesting the new lasts several months in Niger. The presence in southeast Niger of more than 150,000 refugees who fled attacks by Boko Haram and more than 50,000 refugees in the west of the country, from northern Mali that is beset by a Tuareg insurgency and jihadist violence, was having a further negative impact on the food situation, Allambeye said.

In an attempt to reduce the cereal deficit, the government has already launched a programme to irrigate 130,000 hectares of land to produce 500,000 tonnes of food, he said. A poor and arid country with rapid population growth, Niger is often plagued by food crises.