DAKAR, 29 July (IRIN) - The UN's World Food Programme (WFP) will more than double the number of people to receive food aid in Niger, aiming to reach 2.5 million men, women and children in danger of starving, an agency official said on Friday.
Of the 3.6 million people the Niger government says are facing food shortages, WFP now estimates that 2.5 million of them need food aid, WFP country director Gian Carlo Cirri told IRIN from the capital, Niamey.
The WFP previously targeted 1.2 million people for food aid.
After months of urgent UN and government appeals western donors in the past several weeks have begun to provide substantial funding for emergency aid to Niger, where the UN humanitarian coordinator Jan Egeland last week said "thousands of children" had already died for lack of food.
WFP will help the weakest people first, Cirri said.
"We now think that about 1.6 million of the 2.5 million are extremely vulnerable so they are our priority," he said.
WFP's assistance in Niger consists of free food distributions and rations provided to therapeutic and supplementary feeding centres.
WFP expects to announce a revised budget appeal next week, agency officials said.
Niger is moving into the final few months of the lean season - always difficult in this landlocked semi-desert land, but particularly crushing this year after locusts and a drought wiped out crops and pasture in 2004.
WFP was one of the agencies warning of the need for food aid in Niger as early as November 2004.
Aid groups are now warning that the rainy season now underway is likely to lead to the spread of diseases, causing more already weakened children and babies to die.
The United Nations estimates that over two million of Niger's 12 million people live on less than one meal a day and survive on wild roots and leaves. The UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) estimates that up to 150,000 children under five suffer acute malnutrition.
A surge of donations in recent days has allowed humanitarian organisations to begin distributing to populations who so far haven't received any assistance, according to aid workers in Niger.
Aid officials in Niger said the sudden mobilisation by the international community is starting to show on the ground. But they said it is too early to measure the impact on starving populations.
"There is an enormous intervention here now," Jean-Luc Galbrun of Action Against Hunger told IRIN from Maradi, Niger.
Emergency teams of NGOs arrived in Maradi last week and distributions in villages, especially for moderately malnourished children, are getting underway, he said.
"With these new resources and the volume of activity, it is clear that we will see a greater impact," Galbrun said.
Up until early July only Medecins Sans Frontieres was providing emergency relief to Niger's hardest hit populations, concentrated in the south of the country.
This week, WFP and a number of international aid organisations have airlifted hundreds of tonnes of food and supplies into Niger.
Over the coming days WFP is set to dispatch 70 tonnes of high-energy biscuits from its warehouse in Italy to Niger, a WFP official said on Friday. The agency next week will airlift about 185 tonnes of a high-micronutrient cereal from stocks in Cote d'Ivoire.
A number of countries, including Australia, Belgium, France, Germany Italy, Luxembourg, Switzerland, the United Kingdom and the United States, have donated or pledged funds for Niger in the past two weeks.
The US Agency for International Development (USAID) announced on 26 July that the United States will provide about US $7 million for emergency food aid in Niger. A top USAID official visited Niger this week.
The money will go toward sorghum, lentils, oil and other food items - some of which will be sent to Niger from neighbouring countries for immediate availability and some of which will be dispatched from US ports, a USAID statement said.
Aid workers told IRIN that while fighting starvation is the priority now, helping Niger recover and better prepare for future natural disasters will also be critical.
"We believe it's important to have long-term interventions as well," Nuria Salse, a nutritionist for Action Against Hunger, said from Tahoua, Niger.
She said she hopes support for the country will not fizzle out after the height of the emergency, but continue on to help Niger build up the resources and infrastructure "so the worst doesn't happen again."
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