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Harvests Ease Sahel Crisis, Remote Areas Still in Need

As the world's attention shifted to the devastating hurricane Katrina in the southern United States, another humanitarian crisis in West Africa's Sahel region is fading into distant memories. But, while new harvests there are easing food shortages, food supply in desert areas remains desperately low.

In some of the hardest hit areas by malnutrition in Niger, farmers are reaping new harvests of millet, the whole grain which thrives in hot, dry climates.

Rains were good this year and locusts were few, which means this year's harvest should be much more plentiful than previous ones.

But some desert areas of Niger are struggling to grow crops.

Niger-based journalist Ousmane Toudou explains that, lacking new international aid, there is growing solidarity between farmers who are harvesting millet and those who aren't. He says government officials and herders are also taking part in this system, whereby millet and cattle is being swapped among those in need.

A regional food security aid worker, Helene Bertrand, from the British-based group Oxfam, says she doubts this will work.

"If we take the harvest of these people, they will be in a food gap after a while, so most of the crops in Niger are subsistence crops. So I don't think they will have the huge excedent (surplus) needed to feed all people in need of the food in the country," she said.

She says tree planting and water rehabilitation projects to better collect rainfall should be the priority.

Tens of millions of dollars in emergency aid poured into Niger in late July and early August after radio and television reports brought pictures of starving people into homes across the globe.

But more aid money is still needed for the remaining hundreds of thousands of malnourished in Niger, as well as in neighboring Mali and Mauritania.

An American aid worker in Niger, Kathryn Wolford, says reacting late to a crisis is costly.

"Had we intervened much earlier in the first trimester of last year in a very concerted, coordinated way, it would have been much more cheap to avoid the current crisis were in and many lives would have been saved," she said. "I hope the entire world learns from this lesson, invests more in sustainable development and also not only in having an early warning system but the political will to invest at the time when we can avert the major crisis."

Like many aid workers, she says she favors having permanent international relief funds.

"Having a reserve like that available means that you can put a quick infusion of money in when it's easier and cheaper to access foods, when children are not severely malnourished and you can basically prevent the slide into the kind of crisis that we see today," she said. "Peacekeeping nations actually make a contribution towards that and the hope would be that we could do a humanitarian fund like that that would allow the U.N. to move much more quickly in a situation like that."

Ms. Wolford also favors the establishment of grain storehouses and providing aid to struggling farmers.

Aid workers agree the emphasis in development effort should be on dealing with problems underlying poor food production and supply, rather than on food emergencies.