NEW DELHI, Dec 23 (Reuters) - The United Nations has been forced to stop feeding over half a million people in Nepal due to a critical funding shortfall caused by the financial downturn, a World Food Programme (WFP) official said on Wednesday.
The U.N. agency says it needs $20 million to continue feeding 600,000 people -- more than a quarter of the total number it was assisting -- in the impoverished Himalayan nation over the next three months.
"WFP food-for-work programmes have protected millions of poor Nepalis from hunger caused by drought, high food prices, rising insecurity and the economic crisis," Dominique Hyde, WFP's deputy country representative, told Reuters by phone from Kathmandu.
"With the lean season approaching and Nepal facing one of its largest cereal deficits in a decade, WFP no longer has the funds to maintain this vital safety net."
Hyde warned that WFP, which assists 2.2 million people with food in Nepal, would have to stop food aid to a further 250,000 people if vital funds did not come through in the coming days."
The agency faces a major funding shortfall as donor governments are hit by the financial crisis, and in November it directly appealed to one billion individuals on the internet to give small amounts of cash to beat hunger in many countries.
Nepal is emerging from a decade-long civil war against Maoist rebels which killed 16,000 people and devastated the economy.
Despite the end of the conflict in 2006, the number of people at risk of hunger has tripled to more than 3.7 million -- 16.7 percent of the rural population.
Sustained high food prices, erratic monsoon rains and a 400,000 tonnes cereal deficit have forced thousands of poor families to skip meals, sell off assets, borrow money and take children out of school in order to survive.
Aid workers say that due to climate change, monsoons and snow are becoming less dependable, making it harder for poor farmers to eke out a living.
Nepal already has the some of the world's highest rates of child malnutrition, with about 48 percent of children under five considered poor or inadequately fed.
"This is essentially a silent emergency," said Hyde. "This is because those who are being impacted the greatest are in some of the most isolated places on earth." (Editing by Alistair Scrutton and Jerry Norton)
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