TAHOUA, Niger, July 31 (Reuters) - The United Nations has more than doubled the number of people it plans to feed in Niger over the past few days as dwindling food supplies in villages bring people closer to the brink of starvation.
The U.N. World Food Programme (WFP) now aims to provide emergency rations to 2.5 million people compared to the 1.2 million it said it aimed to help last week, reflecting a major increase in the scale of its response.
"We are increasing the number to 2.5 million as more and more people's coping mechanisms are running short," said WFP spokeswoman Stefanie Savariaud, speaking by telephone from Niger's capital Niamey.
"In this kind of emergency operation it's inevitable that the number of beneficiaries increases," she said.
Relief workers treating children dying from hunger after drought and locusts wiped out last year's harvest say the United Nations, the government and other agencies should have started such large-scale emergency food aid much earlier.
U.N. officials said early in July they would only start the current type of emergency food distribution as a last resort, fearing giving such help prematurely could upset local food markets and encourage a damaging dependency on aid.
In normal years in Niger the U.N. distributes much of its aid by feeding participants in "food-for-work" schemes to improve farm infrastructure or provide school meals for children attending class, to promote long-term development.
Now that full-blown emergency aid is under way, it will be used to help people survive until the October harvest, targeted particularly at people who have exhausted what food stocks they could save from last year's meagre crop.
"To us, it's obvious that the situation is not under control by far," the head of WFP operations in Niger, Gian Carlo Cirri, told Reuters. "We still more than ever consider that vulnerable populations are confronting a very, very high risk," he said.
U.N. officials say funding shortfalls and problems procuring food in West Africa, where drought also hit Mali, Mauritania and other areas last year, hindered their ability to respond earlier.
The number of aid agencies working in Niger has increased sharply this month, particularly since media images of starving children gained global prominence, with several aiming to start handing out food in the next few days.
In Tahoua, a town about 500 km (300 miles) northeast of the capital, labourers began unloading trucks of sorghum on Sunday for distribution to villagers on Monday, although heavy overnight rain on mud roads could hinder deliveries.
- Reuters - Thomson Reuters Foundation
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