The United Nations humanitarian chief has urged donors to urgently respond to the appeal for funds to assist millions of people in Niger who are suffering from acute food shortages caused by prolonged drought and crop failure in West Africa's arid Sahel region.
"We have about 46 per cent of what we asked for and we are continuing to appeal with a great deal of urgency to the donor community to recognize the seriousness of the situation, to recognize that we can stop it turning into a disaster, but only if we act quickly," John Holmes, Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator, told UN Radio in an interview yesterday.
Humanitarian agencies in April requested $190.7 million to enable them respond to the crisis in Niger, where almost half of the country's 7.1 million people face the risk of starvation.
Last year's poor rains have led to a 30 per cent decline in cereal production in Niger compared with 2008, while forage production is some 62 per cent below requirements. Food prices remain high, despite a decline from their peaks in 2008.
Mr. Holmes said there was also a growing recognition that the world needs to focus attention on the underlying causes of chronic food insecurity in regions such as the Sahel and the Horn of Africa, which are prone to recurring drought.
"It is better to invest now and quickly, as I say, in agriculture and I think there is a consensus in the international community," Mr. Holmes said.
He said that, given adequate resources, both UN agencies and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) are better prepared to respond to the crisis in Niger than they were in 2005 when the country experienced another serious food crisis.
"I think we have actual capacity on the ground, both the UN agencies and from NGOs, we have a network of nutritional centres, nutritional and supplemental feeding centres which were set up in 2005.
"What we need to do is to step up that capacity even further and make sure, as I said, it is resourced because people have no food or where there's food, they need money to buy it," said Mr. Holmes, who visited Niger in April.
He said the emergency in Niger had been exacerbated by the widespread of loss of fodder and deaths of livestock in a society whose livelihood largely depends on livestock.
"I have been to the nutritional centres, I have seen the malnourished babies, which is always a dreadful sight to see. You see young children of two or three who look as if they are only a few months old. That is an awful sight for any human being to see," he added.