- Finally, significant funds are made available to respond to the famine in Niger, where some 1.2 million people now are at risk of starvation. Due to the late response, emergency food now has to be airlifted to Niger and the WFP now is to save 80.000 lives in a swift operation.
With the international humanitarian response to looming starvation in Niger gathering pace, the UN's World Food Programme (WFP) announced today a series of airlifts to deliver life-saving emergency rations to 80,000 victims of the impoverished West African country's intensifying emergency.
- Whether it is by air, land or sea, the food cannot arrive a moment too soon, said Giancarlo Cirri, WFP Country Director for Niger. "We are working flat out to deliver rations and help provide relief for some of the worst hunger I have ever witnessed," Mr Cirri added. Niger has suffered the double blow of a poor rainy season and devastation to its crops and grazing land from the worst locust invasion in 15 years.
With 1.2 million people at risk of starvation and food stocks dwindling, WFP's logistics operation has five weeks to deliver 23,000 tons of food to 19 districts on the frontline of the country's second-worst hunger crisis in history.
As Niger's food shortages stretch traditional coping mechanisms to their limit, these numbers could however grow even bigger. The "catastrophic famine" in Niger, according to UN reports, could threaten up to 3.5 million people. The extremely poor country faces chronic malnutrition - even in years with good harvests - and a small crisis therefore easily can develop into a major disaster.
International response to the crisis in Niger has been unusually slow and funds were not produced before the WFP criticised donors and helped spread pictures of starving children. But also aid agencies have been exceptionally slow in understanding the crisis, while the Nigerien government for a long time denied there was any extraordinary problem.
With the reaction being so slow, the emergency deepened and by now, only expensive emergency operations like food airlifts can save lives. According to WFP, the first aircraft will take off Thursday morning from Brindisi, Italy, delivering 44 tons of high-energy biscuits to Niger's capital Niamey, the first of three that WFP is sending to Niamey over the coming days.
The cargo will also include mobile warehouses, generators and 4x4 vehicles. From Niamey a convoy of trucks will carry the biscuits along the 660-kilometre desert road to Maradi in the south, one of the hardest hit areas of the country.
Earlier this week, a 25-strong convoy of lorries loaded with 996 tons of rice and 550 tons of pulses – vital components in WFP's food rations – set-off along the 800-kilometre road from the port of Lomé in Togo to Niamey – a five-day journey. In total, over 2,000 tons of food is currently on the road to WFP and its partners, who are distributing the food to the worst-affected areas.
- We are talking about huge distances but the transport network is relatively good, WFP's chief logistics officer Pierre Carrasse said. "The real problem has not been getting the food to the hungry but getting the donations to pay for the food," Mr Carasse added.
WFP says it alerted donors to the growing need for emergency aid as far back as November 2004, but until recently the international community failed to heed warnings from humanitarian organisations that the prolonged drought and locust infestation by now has left some 2.5 million people on the brink of starvation. In the past week, media images of the devastating human consequences of what was earlier called Niger's "Silent Emergency" have finally galvanised the donor community.
Other UN agencies emphasise on the root problems of hunger in Niger. According to recent nutrition surveys, acute malnutrition rates have risen to 13.4 percent in southern Niger's Maradi and Zinder regions. This dramatic situation, holds the UN's children fund UNICEF, is only a minor change from the usual situation in Niger. Under the best of circumstances, 40 percent of Niger's children - or one million - suffer some form of malnutrition.
- The international community and donors must understand, said UNICEF Representative Karim Adjibade, "that this current crisis comes on top of an ongoing structural crisis. Niger holds the second highest under-five mortality rate in the world (263/1000) - one out of four children die before reaching the age of five. Only 48 percent of the population has access to primary health care.
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