By Matthew Green
NIAMEY, July 28 (Reuters) - Relief efforts to save thousands of children from starving to death in Niger are gathering pace after months of delays as agencies scramble to avert a major famine, aid workers said on Thursday.
Emergency donations have increased dramatically in response to harrowing images of emaciated infants, kick-starting operations after nine months of appeals by the government for help for 3.6 million hungry people.
"In the past two weeks aid has been scaling up in an amazing way," said Stefanie Savariaud, spokeswoman for the U.N. emergency food aid body, the World Food Programme.
"The food is both en route and in warehouses ready to be distributed ... We really hope now it's a matter of days because we have no more time to waste," she said, speaking in the West African country's capital Niamey.
Drought and locust invasions last year wiped out crops in thousands of villages in the mainly desert country on the southern fringe of the Sahara, where poverty and hunger kill one in four children under the age of 5 even in good years.
Aid workers say almost a million children are suffering from malnutrition this year, with 150,000 so badly underfed that they could die without emergency assistance. No national data exists, but doctors estimate hundreds have died already.
Government officials in Niger and international aid workers say a slow response from donor countries to months of appeals has allowed the situation to spiral to emergency proportions, sharply increasing the cost of saving lives.
U.N. officials say problems procuring food in the region have also hampered the response, while Niger's opposition has accused the government of a "criminal lack of responsibility" for failing to organise a more efficient approach.
The World Food Programme says it aims to distribute food to 1.5 million people, starting with 275,000 in the next few days, while the government plans to help about 1.3 million scattered across farmland in the south of the country.
Relief officials say the government had been reluctant to launch such widespread food distribution until mid-July, fearing it would upset longer-term efforts to stabilise food prices and perhaps encourage dependency on outside help.
Now aid workers are planning to provide free food to larger numbers of people in the worst-affected villages, hoping to avert mass starvation ahead of the October harvest.
"Now that the response has been gearing up we will hopefully avoid a major famine situation," said Anita McCabe, spokeswoman for Dublin-based aid agency Concern. "It's a major food crisis and there's a lot of children out there who are malnourished, but at this stage it's not a full blown famine."
Alongside Niger, Mauritania and Mali are also suffering food shortages due to last year's failed rains and locusts.
- Reuters - Thomson Reuters Foundation
- For more humanitarian news and analysis, please visit https://www.trust.org/alertnet