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U.N.: African nations face food crisis

By Elizabeth Yaslik, CNN
A bull carcass is evidence of Niger's food shortages.
A bull carcass is evidence of Niger's food shortages.
  • People in four African countries are facing malnutrition after a drought last year
  • The coming weeks will be difficult for Niger, Chad, Mali and Mauritania
  • The drought left a weak harvest, the coming rainy season will make transportation difficult

United Nations (CNN) -- U.N. officials are pleading for immediate economic assistance for four African countries where people are facing malnutrition in the wake of a drought last year.

The coming weeks ahead will be the toughest for these countries in the Sahel -- the stretch of African countries including Niger, Chad, Mali and Mauritania -- as they make their way into the rainy season and scrape by with the little food they have since last year's harvest, officials said.

Humanitarian agencies and relief organizations pushed for continued economic support from the international community on behalf of the drought-ridden African countries at the United Nations on Tuesday.

"The levels of food insecurity have begun to spiral out of control and affect a number of countries across the region," U.N. Under-Secretary-General John Holmes said.

"Niger is the center of this crisis, it is a country by far the worst affected, some 7 million people are suffering from severe or moderate food insecurity and that's almost fifty percent of the country's population," Holmes said.

Over 10 million people in the Sahel are at risk for food shortages, according to the U.N., and their situation is unlikely to improve until the coming harvest in October.

"We're in the long stretch between last year's harvest and the one coming up," said Josette Sheeran, executive director of the World Food Programme, via telephone from Niger. "We have now six weeks until it is agreed we will be out of the severe danger zone and the ramp-up has to happen not in a few weeks but now, before this very difficult time," Sheeran said.

In Chad, thousands of children are suffering from severe acute malnutrition. The number of severely malnourished children doubled from 2,900 in 2009 to 6,508 this year.

"At the end of the day, what kills children suffering from malnutrition is disease of some kind affecting them in their weakened states. And we're particularly concerned that as the rainy season is starting now, diseases like malaria, diarrhea and respiratory diseases will spread as they always do at this time of year and the death rates for the affected children will go up rapidly," Holmes said.

The World Food Programme is expected to increase the number of health centers from 52 to around 140 in the coming weeks. The centers "will be placed strategically in the most vulnerable areas where we're seeing the highest rates of acute malnutrition," said Sheeran.

As the Sahel enters the rainy season, many of the roads will become impassable. Sheeran said the aim of the assistance is to "go into the most severely affected areas to ensure that we have adequate distribution and can reach those families that are cut off on the roads that are becoming much more difficult."

Leaders from the relief organizations urged the international community to step up its economic support for the people in the Sahel. Eveline Rooijmans, a policy adviser with the aid organization Oxfam, said the assistance is needed now.

"What we need now is urgent action from international leaders and donors to make sure that people have access to food now and in the future," Rooijmans said. "While for the future we should indeed invest in long-term measure to avoid this type of crisis from happening again, at this very moment it is about urgent short-term action."