DAKAR, 10 June (IRIN) - Despite last year's poor rains and locust invasions, the 2004-2005 harvest across the nine Sahel countries finally proved better than expected, according to a regional body, the Permanent Interstate Committee for drought Control in the Sahel (CILSS).
But the swarms of hungry insects and lack of rain did contribute to pushing up food prices, a hike which has helped fuel the food crisis currently faced by many people in Mali, Mauritania and Niger, CILSS officials said at a press conference winding up two days of talks on Thursday.
Members of the CILSS and officials from the World Food Programme (WFP), the Food and Agricultural Organisation (FAO) and other agencies said the Sahel region recorded an overall grain surplus of 85,000 tonnes. Niger and Chad on the other hand registered grain deficits of 223,500 and 216 900 tonnes respectively.
"Access to food is difficult in some places due to a drop in output, but especially because of high prices," said Brahima Sidibe from Niger's farming research centre Agrhymet. "It's not a famine, it's that people are poorer and cannot afford to buy food."
Salif Sow of USAID's surveillance network, Fews Net, said "prices are higher than a year earlier."
Grain prices spiralled during the year, notably due to forecasts of a poor harvest for the 2004-2005 season during the locust plague. Sow said the increase varied between 40 percent and 100 percent.
Early rains in May stabilised prices but food is still too expensive for many people in Mali and Niger despite the sale of grains at state-subsidised prices or the introduction of cash for work or food for work schemes.
"More needs to be done to help people at risk in Mali, Mauritania and Niger," said CILSS expert Amadou Mactar Konate.
More than three million people in Niger are facing food shortages in the next few months before the October harvests, according to the government. And on Thursday the British-based charity Oxfam said four million people were at risk of a humanitarian disaster in the three Sahel countries combined.
"The 2004 invasion of desert locusts and lack of rainfall have plunged nomadic herder and farming families in northern Mali, Niger and Mauritania into crisis," Oxfam said.
"Apart from the immediate need for food aid, urgent action is also required to provide seeds and agricultural supplies for planting now to ensure that there will be food to harvest this October for next year's supply," it said.
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