GENEVA— The World Food Program (WFP) reports it is scaling up its emergency assistance program in the Central African Republic (CAR) in response to a worsening food crisis in the country. WFP says tens of thousands of people are going hungry and are extremely vulnerable as the country enters the lean season, the period between harvests.
A nutritional assessment carried out in over 60 communities in the Central African Republic says widespread hunger is chiefly due to the fighting and subsequent seizure of the capital Bangui by the rebel Seleka at the end of March.
Officials from the World Food Program, the Food and Agricultural Organization and private agencies say the volatile situation has lessened. But violence and persistent fear by the population remain high and are largely to blame for the food insecurity. In addition, they say periods of flooding and drought are worsening the nutritional crisis.
WFP spokeswoman Elisabeth Byrs says people are resorting to drastic coping mechanisms to stretch out their dwindling food stocks. She says many people are only eating one meal a day. In some cases, she says adults refrain from eating so their children do not go hungry.
"Some other households sell what they have, their belongings," she said. "They get into debt. They sell their agricultural assets and they also eat their seed stocks. Seed stocks have been depleted because they were either looted or now, during the lean season, they are, in fact, the only food available for some people."
The lean season is the period between harvests when peoples' food stocks are at their lowest. The next harvest in the CAR will be in September or October. Byrs says this poses a dilemma. To prepare for the harvest, she says farmers must plant their crops. But they are unable to do so because they are eating their seeds to stave off hunger.
The World Food Program estimates nearly one-third of CAR's 4.4 million population is food insecure. It says chronic malnutrition among children under five is over 40 percent, and HIV prevalence stands at 6.2 percent, one of the highest in the region.
The United Nations assessment monitored 45 market places and found a scarcity of products and prices too high for most people to afford. It also found people lacked access to health services and medicines because most hospitals have been looted. In many cases, the UN officials note people are foregoing medical care so they have some money to spend on food.
Byrs says this dire situation is likely to get worse. She says children are already paying a great price. She says most schools are closed as a consequence of the fighting and all school feeding programs have stopped. She says humanitarian operations in the country are greatly underfunded.
"We expect that the vulnerable household will become more vulnerable…It is time to ring the alarm bell in the Central African Republic," said Byrs. "It is a forgotten crisis. It is a silent crisis.
WFP already assists 340,000 people. In response to the current food crisis, the UN agency has begun a three-month emergency operation. It will provide life-saving food assistance for an additional 120,000 people and will distribute seeds to farmers so they can sow their fields.