Group: Without Int'l Help, Niger Headed for 'Humanitarian Tragedy'

( [email protected] ) Jun 19, 2010 12:01 PM EDT

A confederation of Catholic relief, development and social service groups says the Sahel region of West Africa is heading for a humanitarian tragedy unless the international community responds to the mounting food crisis.

At least ten million people in the region face hunger, reported Caritas Internationalis on Wednesday, adding that eight million people are at risk in Niger – the worst hit country.

“Niger faces a shortfall of USD 50 million in aid, leaving the country with only have half of what it needs to feed the hungry,” the confederation continued.

“Only 47,000 MT (metric tons) of the 85,000 MT of food aid Niger requested has been committed,” it added.

Niger’s free health system, meanwhile, is “almost bankrupt,” and therefore setting up potentially devastating consequences for children as malnutrition treatment programs are run through health centers.

“We are facing a potential child survival emergency in Niger,” commented Raymond Yoro, secretary general of Caritas Niger.

According to the Catholic leader, 378,000 children are presently at risk of severe acute malnutrition and a further 1.2 million are at risk of moderate malnutrition.

Though the lesson learned from the last major crisis in 2005 was that delays in aid cost lives, Yoro said donors have still been slow to provide funding despite the alarms raised in December 2009.

What’s worse is that Niger is facing much more severe food shortages this year than in 2005 as a result of irregular rainfall, crop deficits, rising food prices and chronic poverty.

“It’s not too late to avert a tragedy,” Yoro reported.

Donors, however, “must immediately give the resources governments in the Sahel and aid agencies need,” he added.

According to the national survey conducted by Niger’s government last December, some 7.8 million people, or nearly 60 percent of Niger's population, are running out of food.

And according to a recently leaked government report, nearly three million people are expected to face "extreme" food shortfalls this year.

Over 800,000 children under the age of five in Burkina Faso, Mauritania, Mali, Niger, northern Nigeria and Chad, meanwhile, have been classified as needing treatment for severe malnutrition.

To fight hunger in Niger, the United Nations said in April that it needed $133 million more. At the time, it had only received $57 of its $190 million total funding request.