YAMA, Niger, Aug 3 (Reuters) - Emergency operations to feed 2.5 million people in Niger reached some of their first beneficiaries on Wednesday, but there was only enough for some of the hundreds of women and children who came in search of help.
Mothers who left their homes at dawn to trek to the village of Yama northeast of the capital swelled a crowd of expectant faces to more than 1,000 by the time aid workers began handing out biscuits and flour from a stock designed for 500 people.
Lining up patiently in an almost festive atmosphere to the thud of drumming by traditional praise-singers, women with the the weakest children received rations to help them gain strength after months of hand-to-mouth survival.
"I came for food. We have no food in our village, and the children are hungry," said Hamsou Kadi, who walked 5 km (3 miles) with her nine-month-old son Saaid.
Once word had gone round that food was coming to Yama, about 500 km (300 miles) northeast of the capital Niamey, hundreds of women left farms scattered across the area to pick their way across muddy fields in the hope of a share.
More distributions are planned in the Tahoua region near Yama and in other parts of Niger, but so far the operation has only begun to reach a fraction of the needy since aid efforts expanded rapidly after funding arrived last month.
"This is what happens when you don't have regular food distribution," said nutritionist Paul Rees-Thomas from Dublin-based aid agency Concern, referring to the big turnout.
"A lot of these people have come from 10 or 20 km away," he said, as supplies were unloaded from vehicles.
In the latest announcement of more donor aid, the United States said it would fly high-energy food from France to Niger on Friday to be distributed to more than 34,000 children in school feeding programmes.
The U.S. government says it has spent about $13.75 million to help Niger fight hunger this year, including a previous airlift of food from Belgium in July.
Aid workers say rich countries failed to fund appeals early enough to preempt the crisis, although emergency food distribution starting to take place in various parts in the south of the arid country may nevertheless still save lives.
Many of the children weighed and measured in Yama were classed as "moderately" malnourished, meaning they can still avoid slipping into such a fragile state that they could die of hunger or illnesses ravaging their weakened immune system.
In Rome, the World Food Programme (WFP) said it had raised its appeal for its Niger operation to $57.6 million from a previous appeal of $16 million -- now met by donors -- reflecting the raised costs of emergency relief.
The U.N. emergency food agency said it could have intervened earlier and reduced the price of dealing with the crisis had it received earlier responses to appeals.
Under an operation that has expanded several times in the past few weeks, WFP is aiming to feed 2.5 million people in southern Niger, where locusts and drought ravaged crops.
British aid agency Oxfam warned that the crisis in Niger should not obscure wider shortages in West Africa, where Mali, Mauritania and Burkina Faso also face hunger.
- Reuters - Thomson Reuters Foundation
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