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Some food for starving lands in Niger – and sits

Sun., Aug. 7, 2005

MARADI, Niger – The sacks of beans have been piled on the zinc-roofed warehouse’s concrete floor for a week. Bottles of oil are lined up next to them like orange plastic toy soldiers.

None of the food, however, was ready to help alleviate the suffering of this hungry nation Saturday.

Aid workers still need to finish training support staff, identify the villages they’ll serve and overcome the other hurdles that can make responding to crises frustratingly slow. They also need much more food.

“We have got some food, but it is definitely not much and it will not cover the whole area,” said Hassan Taifour, a nutritionist with Save the Children in Maradi, which has become a humanitarian hub.

During the week that ended Monday, the U.N.’s World Food Program dispatched 2,550 tons of food to agencies like Save the Children that handle getting it to the hungry. But WFP estimates 58,939 more tons need to get out.

The U.N. appealed Friday for $80 million to fight the food crisis.

“You have to understand that food distribution for 2.5 million people cannot start like that, by snapping your fingers,” Gian Carlo Cirri, who directs the WFP in Niger, said Saturday. “Now that we have a distribution plan laid out, the way is clear.”

Distribution of supplementary food rations has begun for children under 5, considered the most vulnerable. An estimated 800,000 children in Niger are malnourished.

Niger is the world’s second-poorest country, with 64 percent of its 12 million inhabitants surviving on less than $1 day, and hunger always is a problem. But a locust invasion last year followed by drought turned a recurring problem into a disaster.

The crisis has sparked sharp questions about the way the world responds to disasters.

The United Nations first called for help for the northwestern African nation in November and got almost no response. Repeated appeals only recently have been answered, too late for many and only after images of starving children began to appear on TV screens worldwide.

The United States is sending more than 200 tons of high-energy food on two jumbo freighter flights to Niger to help feed thousands of severely undernourished children.

Once money started flowing, planes were loaded with food and sent to Niamey, the capital. A few smaller planes also have landed at Maradi.

But the worst-affected areas are remote and the landlocked country has less than 600 miles of paved roads and no railways. With heavy, seasonal rains just starting, turning dirt roads into quagmires, distribution by truck is likely to be delayed further.

British Red Cross logistics expert Neil Brown said his agency would have sent workers earlier to begin preparations, but it was initially unable to raise the money. Brown’s team arrived only days before the first large WFP shipments did July 30.


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