, NIAMEY, Sep 1 – Collapsed buildings, flooded-out rice paddies: the floods in Niger are not as spectacular as those in Pakistan, but they spell disaster for a people already stricken by a food crisis.
Zarmagandaye, Lamorde and Karadje are three districts of the west African country\’s capital Niamey which have turned into marshland since the beginning of August.
Under the ruins of homes built of clay, cats gnaw on the bodies of dead grey lizards, while a handful of children come to splash around in the deserted streets.
On Monday, torrential rain brought down the few buildings still left upright three weeks after the Niger river, the third biggest in Africa, burst its banks in the worst recorded floods since 1929.
"The bustling districts have now turned into ghost towns, we\’ve never seen the like in living memory," Abdou Ganda, an elderly fisherman, said.
The United Nations has registered more than 17,000 homeless people in the capital. Only half of them, currently sheltered in schools, have received food, blankets and mosquito nets provided by international organisations.
The Niamey-based Niger Basin Authority (ABN), which groups the nine nations crossed by the river and its tributaries, attributes the rise in the river\’s level to exceptionally heavy rain in neighbouring states such as Mali and Burkina Faso.
"We made little of the rising water level and were surprised in our sleep," said Mariama, a widow with nine children who lost everything when their home collapsed.
According to Niger\’s Early Warning System (SAP) and catastrophe management officials, the whole of the country, including the perenially arid desert of the northern Agadez region, has been affected by flooding caused by heavy rain.
The SAP and UN agencies have estimated that almost 200,000 people have no homes in the eight regions of Niger, where at least seven people have died since the start of the catastrophe, according to media reports.
"It\’s a double catastrophe: before the rain, the people lacked food, now the few reserve stocks of cereal have been washed away by the water. There\’s nothing left," said Ibrahim Mahaman, a village chief cited by the Oxfam aid organisation.
More than seven million people in Niger face food shortages in a serious crisis because of a major shortfall in the crop harvest for 2009-2010, according to the UN.
In Niamey, while the floodwaters are gradually pulling back, the meteorological office has forecast heavy rain until mid-September.
On its web site, the Niger Basin Authority has forecast a second major rise in the level of the river between November and January.
To prepare for the worst, local authorities have decided to evacuate the residents of flooded zones to safer sites.
But not everybody wants to go and these people are building barricades of sandbags around their houses.
"Our father told us, \’We\’re not moving from here\’," said Ali and Ousmane, a pair of adolescents in Lamorde, working with their spades to dig canals to get rid of stagnant water in their courtyard.