DAKAR, 3 August (IRIN) - The UN World Food Programme (WFP) is asking donors for US $57.6 million to feed people threatened by famine in Niger, more than three times the amount requested last month.
The additional funding would help WFP provide food to 2.5 million people - a new target the agency announced last week, up from 1.2 million.
The WFP appeal is in addition to $14.6 million requested last week by the UN Children's Fund (UNICEF) to provide emergency health care and nutrition programmes in the landlocked West African country.
"This is absolutely about saving children's lives," UNICEF information officer, Kent Page, told IRIN on Wednesday from Maradi, Niger.
Only a week ago all UN humanitarian agencies combined were asking for $30.7 million for Niger. The UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs is expected in the coming days to announce a new, much larger global appeal.
WFP's aid partners in Niger are beginning to distribute emergency food aid to over one million people after the recent arrival of about 4,200 tonnes of food aid.
After months of appeals the international community only last month began to dig deep into its coffers to help the impoverished semi-desert country, where communities have been pushed to the brink by a severe drought and an invasion of locusts that destroyed crops and pasture in 2004.
To date donors have contributed $20.6 million to WFP's Niger emergency operation - the bulk of it coming in the past several weeks. WFP made its initial appeal in February.
WFP Executive Director James Morris said in a statement on Wednesday that a slow response by donors had driven up the cost of handling the crisis.
"If donors had responded earlier, the cost of this operation would be hugely reduced, as the situation has deteriorated severely over recent months," he noted.
Jan Egeland, the UN's Emergency Response Coordinator, said that saving a starving child costs $80 per day in Niger, compared to $1 to prevent a child reaching that critical stage.
WFP says that in some of the worst affected areas, acute malnutrition has struck up to 20 percent of children under five.
WFP to evaluate food needs in October
Of the 2.5 million people WFP is targeting, about 1.6 million are considered "extremely vulnerable" and are already beginning to receive free food, WFP's Niger country director, Gian Carlo Cirri, said on Tuesday.
Among the initial 1.6 million recipients will be about 480,000 children and pregnant and lactating women. WFP aims to also provide family rations to the most vulnerable to last until the end of the lean season in October.
Part of WFP's funding will go toward a food needs evaluation in October, coinciding with a regional crop assessment.
"This will be a very thorough assessment, done at the household level," Cirri said. "The assessment will guide our future strategy."
Need to examine the 'why'
Bakary Seidou, head of Niger's national food crisis unit, said malnutrition was a recurring problem in Niger, and the key question was why.
"Yes, right now we have to react to save children's lives. But the real work comes after this crisis," he noted. "We must look at the deeper causes of malnutrition in Niger."
He said there were several possible factors, including a lack of education about infant nutrition and weaning, problems with the regional grain market, and an inadequate public health system.
Johanne Sekennes of the medical charity Medecins Sans Frontieres said the initial response to the food crisis - primarily the government's subsidising of grain sales in the most-affected areas - was utterly inappropriate for the situation at hand.
"There should have been free food distributions to the most-affected groups far earlier," she said. The government's opposition to food handouts had earlier been supported by some international development organisations.
Niger's president, Mamadou Tandja, said in a nationwide television address on Wednesday that the food crisis was easing, and pledged special agricultural projects to boost the country's production.
UNICEF's Page said it was good to see international donors responding, but added that the funds must keep coming if aid groups are to continue saving lives.
Aid workers in Niger said with the recent spurt of international funding, they would now able to distribute food in remote villages and reach more moderately malnourished children before they succumb to starvation.
At a therapeutic feeding centre he visited in Maradi on Wednesday, Page said the scene was grim.
"It's silent there. The children are so weak they can't even cry. And these are only the ones lucky enough to make it to the centres."
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