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Thousand in Mali And Niger Starve in Wake of Drought, Locust Invasion

The World Food Program is appealing for $10 million to provide assistance to 800,000 people in Mali and Niger suffering from the double ravages of drought and a locust invasion.

Even in the best of times, the World Food Program says the people of Mali and Niger live a precarious existence. The WFP says these people now are at the end of their rope. It says even in a good year, this region is plagued by chronic food shortages between harvests. But, drought and the locust invasion have practically destroyed what little was left to eat.

A World Food Program spokeswoman, Christiane Berthiaume, says the extent of the crisis can be seen by the growing number of children and adults who are malnourished.

"All the time when there is food insecurity, children are always the most vulnerable, the first ones that are victims of insecurity, of lack of food," she said. "But, now we do see also disturbing signs of malnutrition among adults. Normally, adults, they take time before suffering from malnutrition because we adults have more reserves than the children."

The WFP says the needs are greater in Mali than in Niger. But, in both places, Ms. Berthiaume says people are running out of their usual coping mechanisms. She says the situation is so bad that many people are abandoning the countryside and heading for the cities in search of work.

"Some of them are moving their livestock into agricultural areas so where the animals risk to destroy the crops that are still in the ground," added Ms. Berthiaume. "Another factor is also that the market price for livestock is plummeting as people try to sell and to get cash to buy food. There is also excessive felling of trees to make charcoal. This is another means of raising cash during difficult times."

The World Food Program spokeswoman says the most vulnerable people will receive free food. However, she says the majority of people will receive assistance through food-for-work programs.

She says these programs are aimed at helping farmers rehabilitate their land and improve its productivity for the coming season. She says they will include technical training and activities such as the repair of dams and wells and the creation of small fruit and vegetable gardens.

Another plus, she says is that these programs also lessen peoples' dependency upon outside assistance.