ROME - As donors scramble to respond to Niger's food crisis six months after the United Nations World Food Programme launched its original appeal, WFP today urged the international community not to make the same mistake with other countries in the Sahel region, and Mali in particular.
The 2004 locust invasion and drought that left 2.5 million people in Niger in need of food aid have also created significant food shortages throughout the Sahelian countries where WFP's efforts to feed over 4.2 million people remain critically under-funded at the most crucial time of the year, when people's food stocks are depleted and the harvest is not due for a few months.
Donations only started flowing in for the agency's emergency operation in Niger after television cameras showed haunting images of skeletal children. In the past two weeks, WFP has received some US$22.8 million from international donors but costs have escalated to US$57.6 million because emergency aid must reach beneficiaries at the height of the rainy season and before the harvest. For the other countries, where WFP is currently revising its needs, the shortfall now amounts to approximately US$13 million.
"We trust that donors won't allow the situation to get as severe as Niger before they respond," said James Morris, WFP's Executive Director. "More of our staff are heading into the area as countries have registered rising malnutrition rates among children".
Like Niger, Mali was already facing food deficit problems in the northern part of the country in October 2004 after a significant fall in agricultural production, due to drought and locust infestation. Now, at the height of the lean season, the availability of food has been further reduced, causing people to sell off their animals and other assets on a large scale, as well as to go in for unusual migration. The cost of millet in Gao is almost double the 2004 price and this increase is hampering people's access to staple food.
A recent nutritional survey conducted in the affected areas by the Malian Government and WFP indicate acute malnutrition rates up to 16% in Gao and Kayes. The worst-hit provinces are Gao (Bourem) on the Niger river, Kidal in the remote Adrar des Iforras hills of the northeast and in the regions of Kayes (Nioro) and Koulikoro (Nara) near the border with Mauritania.
"This serious situation warrants an immediate response and WFP is now reorienting its programmes in Mali to address the most urgent needs and to save lives," said Morris.
WFP has already been distributing food in the worst affected parts of northern Mali, having borrowed from its own reserves to buy and position food in the critical areas. Now the agency's supply line is in jeopardy - unless fresh contributions are forthcoming. To date, donations to the USD$7.4 million emergency appeal, launched in March for Mali, are US$2.7 million - a 63 percent shortfall.
In Mauritania, up to 600,000 people were affected by locust infestations and to a lesser extent by drought. Donors have responded positively to WFP's appeal for US$30.9 million, with US$12.8 million (a 58 percent shortfall) so the agency has fulfilled some of its plans; WFP distributions have prevented a food crisis and a worsening of the situation among the most vulnerable households.
Nevertheless, extreme care must be taken to ensure that no food gaps undermine the achievements made so far. In addition, in the easternmost region of the country bordering Mali which is not covered by WFP's current relief operation, food shortages have become serious with high levels of malnutrition reported. WFP plans to expand its current programme to address the immediate needs identified in recent assessments.
Although the situation in Burkina Faso is not as severe as in Niger, Mali and Mauritania, some 500,000 people were affected by crop losses in 2004. Under a five year US$23.5 million country programme (which currently has a 16 percent shortfall), WFP has been stepping up its assistance for vulnerable groups through feeding centres. Those areas which have been assessed as food insecure will require heightened vigilance. Donors' support is critical to enable WFP to continue vulnerable group feeding and to prevent an increase in malnutrition.
"It is our joint responsibility to ensure that the drought and locust-stricken countries in the Sahel do not turn into a full-blown crisis like Niger," said Khaled Adly, WFP Acting Regional Director for West Africa. "We should act now when we can prevent further suffering. A late response would expose millions to the scourge of hunger."
WFP is the world's largest humanitarian agency: each year, we give food to an average of 90 million poor people to meet their nutritional needs, including 56 million hungry children, in at least 80 of the world's poorest countries. WFP -- We Feed People.
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