Farmers in drought-ravaged areas of Niger and Mali have run short of seed and have planted much less land this year, raising the prospect of prolonged food shortages in these countries, the UN World Food Programme (WFP) said on Wednesday.
“There are not enough seeds available, only half as much land has been planted as at the same time last year” Gian Carlo Cirri, the WFP representative in Niger told a news conference in the Senegalese capital Dakar to raise international awareness of the emergency.
The United Nations estimates that 3.6 million people are already at risk of famine in Niger.
Cirri said the next few weeks would be "crucial" to finish sowing in Niger, where the rainy season began in May.
Stressing the gravity of the situation in Niger, Jamie Wicken, WFP's associate director of operations, also drew attention to a similar situation in neighbouring Mali, where the government estimates that a further 1.1 million people will go hungry following poor rains and locust damage to their crops last year.
“If the coming harvest in October and November is bad, millions of people will be affected and we will face a catastrophe,” he said.
Wickens described the food crisis affecting nearly five million people in these two semi-arid countries on the southern fringes of the Sahara desert as one of the world's forgotten emergencies.
WFP appealed six months ago for US $11 million to ease food shortages in Niger and Mali, but international donors had so far only provided 35 percent of this money, he noted.
The two landlocked West African countries are among the poorest in the world.
Niger comes just one rung above Sierra Leone at the bottom of the United Nations's Human Development Index, while Mali ranks as the world's fourth poorest nation.
WFP officials warned that the situation would become desperate in Niger and Mali should farmers fail to sow enough land to provide food for the coming year.
The poor 2004 harvest has left granaries empty in thousands of villages. It has also sent price of grain rocketing. Many farmers can no longer afford to buy the seed they need to plant now in order to guarantee a harvest at the end of the current rainy season that will feed their families next year.
Pablo Recalde, the WFP’s representative in Mali said ranchers and nomadic herdsmen had also been hard hit by a chronic shortage of grazing for their cattle, sheep and goats, and would take even longer to recover.
“It will take pastoralists two years to reconstitute their herds, while farmers will need a year to return to normal,” he said.
“The entire region is under threat,” Recalde stressed.
Following last year's poor harvest, Niger is struggling to cope with a 223,000-tonne shortfall of grain, its biggest food deficit for more than 20 years.
An IRIN correspondent who visited some of the worst-hit areas of the country earlier this month found that some people had resorted to eating leaves of wild bushes. One in five children there are suffering from severe or moderate malnutrition.
In Mali, food prices have soared and the government’s early warning unit fears that between 10 to 15 percent of the country’s livestock could die from thirst and starvation.
WFP said it urgently needed US $7.2 million - US $5.8 million for Mali and US $1.4 million for Niger - to make sure that vulnerable population groups in these countries make it through the next three months until the harvest begins.
“The amount we are seeking … is spare change compared to the cost of many other operations,” said Wickens. “Yet we find ourselves banging the drum.”