UNITED NATIONS, July 19 (Reuters) - Niger's severe food crisis could have been prevented if the United Nations had a reserve fund to jump-start humanitarian aid while appeals for money were considered, a senior U.N. official said on Tuesday.
The U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, known as OCHA, has $50 million to quickly respond to emergencies, but only for loans, which must be repaid.
Instead, it wants $500 million for grants to rapidly launch emergency relief campaigns as soon as warning signs emerge, Jan Egeland, the head of OCHA, told a group of reporters.
"We need a central emergency fund so that we can have some predictability," Egeland said. "As of now we have none."
"We are having an acute humanitarian crisis in Niger in which children are dying as we speak," he said.
Some 3.6 million people are in need of food, among them 800,000 malnourished children. About 150,000 may die unless food arrives quickly in the impoverished West African nation of 13 million.
But much of this was foreseeable due to a massive locust infestation and recurring drought across the belt of countries lining the southern edge of the Sahara.
Niger was hit the hardest, but the international response has been glacial.
Rains have started to fall, but without seeds and money for livestock, tools and feed, the October harvest will fail.
An appeal by the Food and Agricultural Organization for $4 million brought in $650,000, all of it from Sweden.
U.N. agencies have appealed for $30 million in humanitarian aid, and about $10 million of that has come in so far.
Had the world responded immediately, it would have cost $1 a day to prevent malnutrition among children. Now it costs some $80 to save a malnourished child's life, Egeland said.
"We will get funding for Niger, images are coming out of children dying," Egeland said. "But it is too late for those who are so severely malnourished and dying."
The combined annual U.N. appeal for humanitarian aid, typically about $3.5 billion a year, "is one-third of what Europeans eat in ice cream a year, and it is one-tenth of what Americans spend on their pets a year," he said.
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