August 3, 2005

Food reaches lucky few in hungry Niger, others wait

By Finbarr O'Reilly

YAMA, Niger (Reuters) - Emergency operations to feed 2.5
million people in Niger reached some of their first
beneficiaries on Wednesday, but there was only enough for some
of the hundreds of women and children who came in search of

Mothers who left their homes at dawn to trek to the
northeastern village of Yama swelled a crowd of expectant faces
to more than 1,000 by the time aid workers began handing out
biscuits and flour from a stock designed for 500 people.

Lining up patiently in an almost festive atmosphere to the
thud of drumming by traditional praise-singers, women with the
weakest or thinnest children received rations to help them gain
strength after months of hand-to-mouth survival.

"I came for food. We have no food in our village, and the
children are hungry," said Hamsou Kadi, who walked 5 km (3
miles) with her nine-month-old son Saaid.

Once word had gone round that food was coming to Yama,
about 500 km (300 miles) northeast of the capital Niamey,
hundreds of women left farms scattered across the area to pick
their way across muddy fields in the hope of a gaining a share.

More distributions are planned in the Tahoua region near
Yama and in other parts of Niger, but so far the operation has
only begun to reach a fraction of the needy since aid efforts
expanded rapidly after funding arrived in the past few weeks.

"This is what happens when you don't have regular food
distribution," said nutritionist Paul Rees-Thomas from
Dublin-based aid agency Concern, referring to the big turnout.

"A lot of these people have come from 10 or 20 km away," he
said, as supplies were unloaded from four-wheel-drive vehicles.

Regarded as a late response by aid workers who blame donors
for failing to fund appeals earlier, the emergency food
distribution starting to take place in various parts in the
south of the arid country may nevertheless still save lives.

Many of the children weighed and measured in Yama were
classed as "moderately" malnourished, meaning they can still
avoid slipping into such a fragile state that they could die of
hunger or illnesses ravaging their weakened immune system.

In Rome, the World Food Programme (WFP) said it had raised
its appeal for its Niger operation to $57.6 million from a
previous appeal of $16 million -- now met by donors --
reflecting the raised costs of providing emergency relief.

The U.N. emergency food agency said it could have
intervened earlier and reduced the price of dealing with the
crisis had it received responses to appeals earlier this year,
saying more money only started arriving due to media coverage
last month.

Under an operation that has expanded several times in the
past few weeks, WFP is aiming to feed 2.5 million people in
southern Niger, where locusts and drought ravaged crops.

British aid agency Oxfam warned on Wednesday that the
crisis in Niger should not obscure wider food shortages in West
Africa, where Mali, Mauritania and Burkina Faso also face