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Food Crisis in Niger Could Affect Region

The World Food Program in Niger says the country now has 70 percent of the food needed to begin to stem the hunger crisis. Some aid workers are worried food shortages, driven by drought and locust plagues, could be made worse, as people leave their villages in search of food.

Government and civil society groups have formed a committee to distribute food to over two million people suffering from severe malnutrition in Niger. Although the amount of food aid to Niger has increased in recent weeks, a member of the national Food Crisis Committee, Moustapha Kadi, says food aid is reaching people too slowly.

Mr. Kadi says that international organizations have received three times more food aid than the government. But he says food distribution is being hampered by red tape.

A government spokesman, Ben Omar, says the response of international organizations to the food crisis in Niger has been slow. U.N. agencies and aid organizations have said for months that there is an impending food crisis in the country, where harvests were devastated by drought and a plague of locusts, but substantial aid did not arrive until July.

Mr. Omar says he wishes the response to the crisis in Niger had been as prompt as the response to the victims of the Tsunami, which hit South Asia last December.

Mr. Omar says food prices have risen dramatically, because there are hardly any cereals in the country. People are looking for other staples, such as sorghum and manioc flour. The Niger government has been buying grain from traders and selling it to people at subsidized prices.

A spokesperson for the World Food Program (WFP) in Niger, Stephanie Savariaud, says, although there is severe malnutrition in the country, there is not yet a famine, when adults become malnourished. She says, at the moment, those affected most by the lack of food are children under five and old people.

Ms. Savariaud says the international response has been good in the past weeks, and there are finally enough resources to begin dealing effectively with the crisis.

"WFP is very thankful to all the countries that have been contributing in an amazing way during the last weeks to the emergency operations, especially the United States, who are for the moment the first biggest contributor," she said.

Ms. Savariaud says that the attention on Niger has helped to draw attention to other countries in the region, which are experiencing drought and need food aid.

"The whole West African region has been neglected this past month," she explained. "I want to stress that there is a U.N. appeal for $196 million for West Africa in 2005, which includes Mali, Burkina Faso and Mauritania, and, at the moment, this appeal has received only 39 percent of requested funds."

She says she is particularly concerned that there are not enough resources for Mali, where over one million people will need food aid.

Neighboring countries have been affected by the crisis in Niger in unexpected ways. Flocks of starving birds, for example, have crossed over into north Nigeria and ravaged cereal crops.

A representative of the aid agency, Plan Niger, Fatimata Alainchar, says she is worried about people who are migrating across borders in search of food.

Ms. Alainchar says that the region has a tradition of migration. Not only is there hunger at the village level, but there is a risk of a major exodus, as people leave their homes to find food.

Aid workers say young men in villages have left their homes to find new grazing for their cattle, or to try to sell them to buy food.

Although crops planted in late May have been growing well, until the harvest comes in late September, many people will have to depend on food aid.