ROME - The United Nations World Food Programme today tripled its emergency appeal for Niger's escalating food crisis, warning the international community that more food aid would be needed to save 2.5 million people from extreme hunger and malnutrition.
Niger's so-called lean season (April-October), combined with serious food shortages due to last year's drought and locust invasion, have obliged WFP to revise the cost of its life-saving operation from US$16 million to US$57.6 million - the third adjustment in six months.
Under the expanded operation, WFP will target 2.5 million severely hungry people in southern Niger - the epicenter of the crisis - providing supplementary food to children and mothers and family rations until the end of the lean season. Rations for three months following the October harvest are provided for a further 500,000 people to serve as a safety net in case of need.
"With the situation deteriorating over recent weeks, our main objective is to save lives," said James Morris, WFP's Executive Director. "Whole families are suffering because of a desperate shortage of food, which has forced them to eat just one meal a day of maize, leaves or wild fruits."
WFP is not only doubling the number of people receiving food assistance, but also giving them a wider variety of nutritious foods. By building up the blanket feeding of children under five, as well as providing supplementary feeding to pregnant and lactating mothers, WFP aims to bring down acute levels of malnutrition - exceeding 20 percent in many areas.
Total admissions to therapeutic feeding centers this year have nearly quadrupled compared with 2004, with some 11,000 children having received treatment.
There is only a very short window of opportunity in which to move food quickly to those who need it most - before the height of the rainy season makes access difficult. The need to hasten the operation has significantly increased transport costs.
After a slow start, the international community has rallied over the past two weeks to support the world's second poorest country with some generous donations; WFP's previous request for US$16 million is now fully funded.
But donors have been playing catch-up with the tragedy unfolding in Niger ever since failing to heed warnings from WFP, other UN agencies and non-governmental organisations at the start of the year, when Niger faced one of its worst ever hunger crises.
"If donors had responded earlier, the cost of this operation would be hugely reduced, as the situation has deteriorated severely over recent months," Morris said.
Donations only started flowing in after television pictures showed heart-rending images of Niger's hunger from feeding centers in Maradi in southern Niger. The television coverage came soon after the commitments made on Africa's behalf at the G8 summit and the publicity given to the continent's plight at the Live8 concerts.
"This was a desperately needed wake-up call, but the response we have received so far is encouraging. We can still save lives," Morris said.
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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