- The Washington Times - Monday, October 3, 2005

NIAMEY, Niger — International food aid distributions in Niger are coming to a halt with the start of the fall harvest, but relief workers say children are still starving in some areas and government officials warn that severe food shortages could return within a year.

The United Nations World Food Program (WFP) has worked with the Niger government and aid agencies to deliver food to 3 million people after drought and locust swarms led to grain scarcities and price shocks in this country and across West Africa’s dust-blown Sahel region.

More than 1.8 million Nigerians have been fed by the WFP alone since free emergency distributions began in August. The final round of distributions, scheduled to end Oct. 10, is under way, targeting 1.7 million people deemed “most vulnerable.”

The WFP, which has faulted the international community for a delayed response to the crisis, said it has received less than 60 percent of its $58 million appeal for aid.

Meanwhile, aid groups have criticized WFP for its plans to cease widespread food distributions, calling the move premature when hunger and malnutrition are getting worse in parts of the country.

Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF) said about 2,000 severely malnourished children are being taken in each week by MSF teams stationed in the critical areas of Maradi, Zinder and Tahoua.

MSF said mortality rates for children under 5 have climbed to 5.3 deaths per 10,000 children per day. They estimate they will treat more than 40,000 more children for malnutrition by the end of the year.

However, WFP officials say that large-scale free distribution must stop to avoid further distorting exceptionally high cereal market prices.

A WFP market survey showed that in June cereal prices were 45 percent higher than the average of the past five years.

And farmers have been forced to mortgage this season’s crop to pay for rising costs.

Seidou Bakari, coordinator of the Niger government’s food crisis unit, agreed that an end to massive handouts was necessary to allow farmers to make a living and build up stocks.

Heavy rain has given hope for a good harvest in Niger, with production in the Sahel region projected at 12 million to 14 million tons, compared with 11.5 million last year, according to the Committee for Drought Control in the Sahel.

But WFP and government officials said this can be misleading because farmers weakened by the food shortage may lack the energy to do the necessary work to bring the crop to market.

Niger, the least-developed country in the world according to the latest U.N. Development index, has only 3 percent arable land and depends on food imports during the lean months leading up to the annual harvest.

The problem was compounded this year by a food shortfall in neighboring countries such as Mali.

“Finding large quantities of cereal within the region has been all but impossible,” said WFP spokesman Marcus Prior.

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