The situation is especially serious in Niger, where 3.6 million people, or 28 per cent of the population, are affected by food shortages, caused by a combination of drought and last year's invasion by swarms of locusts. This has compounded longer-term food insecurity.
"We have a window of opportunity to avert a major catastrophe," warned Langdon Greenhalgh, who is coordinating the International Federation operation. "The next harvest is due in three months, so seeds will need to be distributed and sown in the next couple of weeks. Activities to improve the nutrition of vulnerable children will have to commence by the beginning of August if we want to prevent widespread starvation."
Recent nutritional surveys in Niger indicate severe acute malnutrition rates of up to 2.9 percent amongst children under five years of age, with the figure for the worst-hit areas as high as six per cent. Global acute malnutrition rates have reached 20 per cent in some regions. "Current UN estimates are that about 800,000 children in Niger are going hungry, and partner organisations are reporting a significant increase in children coming to therapeutic feeding stations - and this is before the real lean season gets under way. These numbers will almost certainly rise in the coming month," Greenhalgh explained.
It is not only Niger that is in the grip of food shortages. Populations in neighbouring countries - some 2.2 million in Mali, 1.6 million in Burkina Faso and 750,000 in Mauritania - are also under threat. The International Federation's appeal seeks to address food insecurity in all four countries in cooperation with the governments concerned, United Nations specialised agencies and partner NGOs.
The Red Cross Red Crescent operation will seek to assist 222,000 of the most vulnerable people in the region for the next six months, through food, seed and fodder distributions, mobile feeding centres and community-based awareness programmes. A key element of the operation will be bolstering livelihoods, to make communities more resilient in future, to ensure they stay in their villages, where coping mechanisms are strongest, and so they do not become reliant on external assistance.
"To make this operation a success, we have to overcome many severe logistical challenges, particularly in the fields of transport and telecommunications. We want to support the National Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies in meeting the immediate needs of the communities in which they work, but also to give them the capacity, in terms of skills and equipment, to better respond to any future emergencies," said Alasan Senghore, Head of the International Federation's regional delegation for West and Central Africa. He pointed out that a number of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies - including those from France, Norway, Qatar and Spain - are already active in the affected areas.
For further information, or to set up interviews, please contact:
In Dakar: Raphaël Lambal, Regional Information officer Tel: +221 869 36 28
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