Dakar The United Nations World Food Programme today announced plans to almost triple the number of people being fed through its Niger emergency operation to over a million, as the annual ‘hunger season' takes a firm and distressing grip on one of the world's poorest countries.
Most immediately at risk are young children. Feeding centres run by Medecins sans Frontieres (MSF) are reporting admission rates nearly three times those during the same period last year. Recent nutritional surveys point to severe acute malnutrition rates of between 2.4 and 2.9 percent amongst children under five years old, with global rates of around 20 percent. In the worst hit areas rates for severe acute malnutrition are as high as six percent.
Conditions in Niger are particularly critical this year following a poor rainy season and devastation to crops and grazing land caused by the worst locust invasion in 15 years.
With several NGOs now arriving in Niger to start up specialized nutritional programmes, WFP will target free food to mothers accompanying malnourished children to these centres. Other vulnerable households will also receive free food supplies through targeted general food distributions, already established by the government of Niger and NGOs.
"Children are dying and adults are going hungry," said WFP Niger Country Director, Gian Carlo Cirri, who has been appealing for a rapid response to Niger's worsening food crisis. "We have said this before and we are saying it again - Niger needs help today, not tomorrow."
WFP's initial response has been severely hampered by late funding and difficulties buying food within the region. Supplies are now being sourced at ports in West Africa and on other international markets.
Following widespread coverage of Niger in the international media, the bulk of WFP's US$4.2 million appeal (US$ 3.9 million) for 465,000 people was received in the last six weeks. However, WFP now requires an additional US$12 million to cover the rapidly rising costs of the operation which now aims to feed nearly 1.2 million people.
Even in a good year, malnutrition rates amongst young children in Niger are extremely high. Some 82 percent of the population rely on subsistence farming and cattle rearing while only 15 percent of the land is suitable for arable farming. There is little irrigation, leaving most farmers at the mercy of the rains.
"The international community cannot allow Niger to live as if cursed by poverty - we have the means to make a change and we need to mobilise them urgently," said Cirri.
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