WITH RATIONS RUNNING OUT FOR NORTH KOREA'S HUNGRY, WFP APPEALS FOR PROMPT DONATIONS
SEOUL - A slump in donations for its emergency operation in the Democratic People's Republic of Korea will force the World Food Programme to halt vital distributions to almost all of its 3.8 million "core" beneficiaries over the next the two months, the United Nations agency warned today.
"This downturn in donations has resulted in a critical shortfall for our operation. It will aggravate the considerable suffering of the DPRK's most vulnerable children, women and elderly people," said Tony Banbury, WFP's Regional Director for Asia.
"By August, just 12,000 children in hospitals and orphanages will be receiving WFP cereals. It's never been this bad. We need fresh pledges now if our efforts to alleviate hunger and reduce malnutrition are not to be seriously compromised."
By far the largest humanitarian agency in the DPRK, this year WFP appealed for 504,000 tonnes of commodities, valued at US$202 million, to help feed 6.5 million North Koreans. So far it has secured 230,000 tonnes - almost all now consumed.
While harvests have improved somewhat in recent years, the DPRK's chronic food deficit persists. A UN assessment forecasts a cereals gap for the current marketing season (November 2004-October 2005) of 900,000 tonnes, some 20 per cent of minimum needs.
Meanwhile, economic reforms have led to steep increases in market prices of basic food items and reduced the purchasing power of the poorer segments of society.
WFP's unprecedented funding crunch coincides with the start of the agricultural "lean" season, the four to five month period prior to the autumn rice and maize harvests when stocks of the previous year's crops rapidly run down.
WFP ration cuts come on top of a cut in the ration the government provides to the 70 per cent of the 23.5 million population living in urban areas. In January, the Public Distribution System allocation of subsidised cereals was reduced from an average of 300 grams per person a day to 250 grams - 40 per cent of the internationally recommended minimum calorie intake. Local officials say a further cut - to 200 grams - is imminent.
Alternative sources of food are increasingly costly. In the past 12 months, the market price of rice has nearly tripled, and that of maize has quadrupled. The average monthly wage of an urban worker - about one Euro at the market exchange rate - now buys less than four kilograms of maize, the cheapest cereal.
A survey last October by UNICEF, WFP and the DPRK government found that the rate of chronic malnutrition among young children had declined to 37 per cent, from 42 per cent in 2002. Such gains could be reversed without sustained humanitarian assistance, Banbury warned.
"Generous bilateral aid from South Korea helps to narrow the North's sizeable food shortfall," he said, lauding the resumption last week of much-needed fertiliser supplies and the transfer since 2001 of 1.2 million tonnes of rice in the form of concessional, government-to-government loans.
"The government here has also been very supportive of WFP's vital work in the DPRK, committing 100,000 tonnes of maize annually for the past four years. Our very careful targeting ensures that it goes to those who need it most - the hungriest of the hungry."
"At this time of critical need, we are again turning to the South Korean government and asking for their help."
Acknowledging that WFP's ability to monitor food aid and assess needs was adversely affected by additional restrictions imposed by the DPRK authorities late in 2004, Banbury noted that a new, improved monitoring system, endorsed by Pyongyang, was now being implemented.
"The combination of reduced government rations, rising market prices and reduced WFP assistance - all during the lean season - has conspired to produce an exceptionally difficult situation for millions of the poorest North Koreans," he said.
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