DAKAR, July 18 (Reuters) - Rains on Niger's dust-blown fields have kindled hopes a devastating drought may be ending, but relief workers warned on Monday that more aid was needed to save starving children.
Rich nations largely ignored Niger's calls for help last year when failed rains and locusts pushed 3.6 million people to the brink of starvation in the arid West African country, which has difficulty feeding itself even in good years.
Better weather in the past month has provided a tentative sign the next harvest in October may alleviate the worst suffering, but thousands of children are still at risk of dying before then unless donors step up a belated effort to help.
"We want to see targeted food distribution to the children most in need," said Johanne Sekkenes, head of mission for medical organisation Medecins sans Frontieres (MSF) in Niger.
MSF, which has borne the brunt of caring for the worst-affected children, say other organisations like Save the Children and Oxfam are now expanding their efforts in Niger, but a lack of food aid is slowing the overall response.
"There's a big problem with specialised foodstuffs for moderately malnourished children," Sekkenes said. "That's the challenge now to get this quickly to the country so that other operations who are now present can start up their operations."
Without such food, hungry children who might otherwise survive can quickly weaken and die, often succumbing to malaria that thrives in the wetter conditions at this time of year.
The U.N. World Food Programme, responsible for emergency food aid, says donations to its appeals have improved following increased media coverage of the crisis in the past few weeks, but the food will take time to arrive.
The government of Niger, ranked by U.N. data as the second poorest country in the world after Sierra Leone, says an earlier response from donors would have allowed it to avert the crisis.
While tufts of millet - the country's staple cereal - are poking through the soil in many villages, granaries that should have been replenished by last year's October harvest have long since emptied, forcing some people to eat leaves to survive.
Children at MSF feeding centres have been dying daily.
The U.N. Food and Agriculture Organisation, which aims to wean countries off long-term dependence on emergency aid, appealed on Monday for funds to buy fertilisers, tools and cattle feed to bolster farmers' incomes in the coming months.
The FAO said it had only received $650,000, donated by Sweden, to a $4 million appeal for Niger in May.
Canada pledged $1 million last week for food aid to Niger, although other members of the Group of Eight industrialised countries who met in Britain this month for a summit on African poverty have generally done little to prevent the crisis.
- Reuters - Thomson Reuters Foundation
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