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WFP Warns of Food Crisis in Sahel Region

The World Food Program, WFP, is warning of a potential food crisis in Africa's Sahel region. But, WFP says the kind of tragedy unfolding in Niger can be averted if international donors contribute now to relieve food shortages in Mali, Mauritania and Burkina Faso.

The World Food Program says the 2004 locust invasion and drought in western Africa has created significant food shortages throughout the semi-arid Sahel region. Niger's desperate situation only recently lurched into world prominence due to graphic television pictures of skeletal children dying from hunger.

WFP says 2.5 million people in Niger are in urgent need of food aid. But, it notes more than two million other people in neighboring Mali, Mauritania and Burkina Faso also are going hungry in the wake of last year's drought and locust infestations.

WFP Spokesman, Simon Pluess, says these silent emergencies have not yet hit the TV screens and its assistance programs remain critically underfunded.

"It is, of course, our responsibility to ensure that all these countries that have been affected by drought and locust, do not turn into full-blown crises like we see it now in Niger and we should act now and not wait any longer," said Mr. Pluess.

Mr. Pluess, says Mali is at particular risk. He says about one million people or 10 percent of the population is threatened by a food crisis. In February, WFP appealed for $7.3 million in emergency aid. But, Mr. Pluess notes less than $3 million has been received.

"Mali has already been facing a food deficit last year," he noted. "We have been speaking about it already in October. Now, at the height of the lean season, the food security has further deteriorated and people try to survive by, like for example, selling their livestock or other assets or simply migrate to other areas or to the cities."

A recent nutritional survey carried out in the affected areas by the government of Mali and the WFP shows acute malnutrition rates of up to 16 percent. Mr. Pluess says the worst hit provinces are near the border with Mauritania. He says it is not too late to save lives if the international community sends money now. In the meantime, he says, WFP is borrowing from its own reserves to buy food for people in the critical areas.

The World Food Program reports up to 600,000 people in Mauritania were affected by locust infestations and to a lesser extent by drought. Mr. Pluess says donors have responded generously to WFP's appeals, so it has been able to prevent a food crisis in this country.

"But, there are areas bordering Mali which are not covered by current WFP operations and the food security in this area has become critical with very high level of malnutrition reported," he added. "And, we are now planning to expand our current program to address these needs."

The World Food Program says the situation in Burkina Faso is not as severe as in Niger, Mali and Mauritania. Nevertheless, it notes some 500,000 people were affected by crop losses last year.

Mr. Pluess says WFP is stepping up assistance for vulnerable groups through feeding centers and is keeping a watchful eye on areas that are threatened by food shortages.