July 31, 2005

U.N. to feed an extra 1.3 million people in Niger

By Matthew Green

TAHOUA, Niger (Reuters) - The United Nations has more than
doubled the number of people it plans to feed in Niger as
dwindling food supplies in villages push more people close to
the brink of starvation.

The U.N. World Food Programme (WFP) now aims to provide
emergency rations to 2.5 million people compared with the 1.2
million it said it aimed to help last week, reflecting a major
increase in the scale of its response.

"We are increasing the number to 2.5 million as more and
more people's coping mechanisms are running short," said WFP
spokeswoman Stefanie Savariaud, speaking by telephone from
Niger's capital Niamey.

"In this kind of emergency operation it's inevitable that
the number of beneficiaries increases," she said.

Relief workers treating children dying from hunger after
drought and locusts wiped out last year's harvest say the
United Nations, the government and other agencies should have
started such large-scale emergency food aid much earlier.

U.N. officials said early in July they would start the
current type of emergency food distribution only as a last
resort, fearing that acting prematurely could upset local food
markets and encourage a damaging dependency on aid.

Two WFP airlifts of emergency food supplies this weekend
were due to deliver enough high-energy biscuits to feed 100,000
people while they wait for full rations to arrive.

The U.N. agency also plans to airlift 186 tonnes of corn
soya blend from Ivory Coast's main city Abidjan next week.


In normal years in Niger the U.N. distributes much of its
aid by feeding participants in "food-for-work" schemes to
improve farm infrastructure or provide school meals for
children attending class, to promote long-term development.

Now that full-blown emergency aid is under way, it will be
used to help people survive until the October harvest,
particularly those who have exhausted what food stocks they
could save from last year's meager crop.

"To us, it's obvious that the situation is not under
control by far," the head of WFP operations in Niger, Gian
Carlo Cirri, told Reuters. "We still more than ever consider
that vulnerable populations are confronting a very, very high
risk," he said.

U.N. officials say funding shortfalls and problems
procuring food in West Africa, where drought also hit Mali,
Mauritania and other areas last year, hindered their ability to
respond earlier.

The number of aid agencies working in Niger has increased
sharply this month, particularly since media images of starving
children gained global prominence, with several aiming to start
handing out food in the next few days.

In Tahoua, a town about 500 km (300 miles) northeast of the
capital, laborers began unloading trucks of sorghum on Sunday
for distribution to villagers on Monday, though heavy overnight
rain on mud roads could hinder deliveries.