- Hundreds of thousands of children could go hungry yet again this year across the arid Sahel, one of the world’s poorest regions, the United Nations said on Tuesday. Burkina Faso, Mali, Mauritania and Niger are most affected by the current drought.
“The situation is serious, the coming weeks will be critical,” said the West Africa director of the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, Herve Ludovic de Lys.
The UN is appealing for US $91.9 million to help some five million people at risk of going hungry in Burkina Faso, Mali, Mauritania and Niger.
Media images of emaciated children in Niger last year shocked the world, bringing a surge of support for a country hit by poor harvests, a rare but devastating locust invasion and soaring food prices - all amid chronic poverty.
But despite a good harvest late in 2005, people in Niger and across the Sahel face more months of empty stomachs from now until October/November 2006, the lean months ahead of the harvests when granaries tend to run empty, UN officials said.
Last year’s food crisis forced farming families into heavy debt they are still struggling to repay, while prices of basic foodstuffs remain high. In Niger a sack of millet borrowed in late spring of 2005 for seed or for food required up to three sacks as repayment by October of the same year.
And children are the most at risk, with malnutrition partly to blame for the deaths of over 300,000 children - just over half of the child deaths in the region, said Theophane Nikyema, deputy director of the regional office of the UN children’s agency UNICEF.
In recent months UNICEF has been conducting nutrition assessments across the Sahel to help forecast the 2006 picture. Tuesday’s new appeal to international donors comes on top of a request for $152 million in the original UN Consolidated Appeal for West Africa, bringing the total to $244 million.
The deputy director of the World Food Programme’s regional office, Christine Van Nieuwenhuyse, said the funds would be used not only to help feed an estimated five million people who could go hungry, but also to bolster nutritional centres, local cereal banks and help provide long-term solutions to chronic hunger.
“We must have long-term solutions,” she told a media conference in the Senegalese capital Dakar. “Children who are malnourished carry the consequence for years and malnutrition feeds poverty, which in turn feeds malnutrition.”
In a separate statement, Oxfam said that currently one in three people in Niger do not have enough to eat and that this figure could double in six months failing an international response.
“While the emergency response is imperative, there must be a true and sustained commitment to long-term engagement,” said Natasha Quist, Oxfam GB’s West Africa director. “Without it, the people of the Sahel will remain among the world’s most vulnerable, marginalised and perpetually at risk of food crises.”
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