Food crisis rumbles on with help still needed

The child-victims of this year’s food crisis in arid Niger will continue to go hungry in 2006, unless donors stump up the cash for emergency operations, said the World Food Programme on Wednesday.

A food crisis that affected some 3.5 million people in Niger this year hit children hardest, causing hundreds of thousands of cases of malnutrition and an unknown number of child deaths.

A recent food security assessment by the Rome-based agency unveiled a worrying nexus of poverty, debt and widespread food insecurity with 1.2 million people estimated to have insufficient cereal stocks to last beyond three months.

“It will take only the slightest adversity to push families over the edge again,” said WFP Niger country director, Gian Carlo Cirri in a statement. “Many people have used every available means to get them through this year and the harvests will bring only a brief respite.”

The most devastating locust invasion in West Africa in 15 years and recurrent drought left tens of millions of people hungry this year. Images of skeletal babies in worst hit Niger fuelled an international emergency feeding programme under which WFP continues to provide food to two million people.

WFP needs US $20.3 million to continue that emergency feeding operation through until March 2006, and unless US $8.3 million is found immediately, supplies could run out by December.

The first harvests began last month, but many families dipped so far into their reserves selling seeds or animal stocks, that they will remain vulnerable next year, said WFP.

In the midst of the crisis, many men worked as day-labourers to boost household incomes, but this detracted energies away from farms and could reduce the harvest, warned WFP.

Niger is the world’s poorest country according to the UN’s Human Development Index, and food security is a perennial problem.

“Niger has sadly slipped down the international agenda, which could have disastrous consequences for those who are still suffering from the effects of this year’s crisis,” said Cirri. “But Niger needs more than a quick fix – it needs sustained and targeted support to help it out of its crushing poverty once and for all.”

For the first time last week representatives of the UN, governments, NGOs and donors met in the Senegalese capital, Dakar, to discuss how to tackle the root causes of recurring food shortages in sub-Saharan Africa’s arid regions.

At the conference, the UN estimated that nearly half the total population, or 32 million people, in nine west African countries -- Burkina Faso, Cape Verde, Chad, Gambia, Guinea-Bissau, Mali, Mauritania, Niger and Senegal -- suffer from malnutrition.

Without investment in long-term development initiatives and structural changes in these countries, populations will teeter on the brink of disaster year after year, warned officials at the close of the conference.