January 16, 2006

UN seeks $240 mln of food aid for West Africa

By Marie-Louise Gumuchian

DAKAR (Reuters) - Nearly $240 million is needed to feed at least 10 million people this year in West Africa, where food shortages risk being overshadowed by emergencies elsewhere on the continent, the United Nations said on Monday.

Several countries in West Africa suffered shortages last year after crops were ravaged by drought and locusts.

In Niger, the worst-affected, aid groups scrambled to tackle a food crisis affecting more than 3 million people.

"Despite a good harvest at the end of 2005, the Sahel region will face another difficult year," the UN's World Food Programme said in a statement spelling out its funding needs.

"The poorest are likely to find themselves in a precarious situation again, their survival strategies exhausted and their purchasing power depleted."

So far, $18.4 million had been received out of a total $237 million required for 2006. WFP said it planned to feed at least 10 million people in West Africa with over 300,000 tonnes of food.

In Niger, the UN agency says it needs $22 million to extend its emergency operation until March or else food supplies could be disrupted within a matter of weeks.

But aid is also urgently needed elsewhere in Africa.

About six million people are on the brink of starvation in the Horn of Africa due to severe drought, crop failure and depletions of livestock herds, while some 12 million people in southern Africa need emergency food aid, the UN says.

"It is possible Southern Africa or the Horn of Africa will divert donors' attention from West Africa," WFP's senior deputy executive director, Jean-Jacques Graisse told a news conference in the Senegalese capital Dakar.

"In West Africa, the urgencies are either not very visible or have lasted a long time."

In Niger, donations poured in only after months of appeals. Aid workers blamed donor nations for failing to respond quickly, pointing out that the cost to donors of saving a starving child is much greater than the cost of feeding them to avert a crisis.

WFP also warned that increased hostilities in eastern Chad, where rebels attacked a border town last month, could disrupt food deliveries to aid camps, home to over 200,000 refugees from Sudan's Darfur conflict.

"The Sahel region has for too long been allowed to slip deeper and deeper into poverty, despite relative stability and democratic government," Graisse said. "Poverty means that millions of people right here in West Africa wake up each day uncertain how they are going to feed themselves."