Niger donations rise but still fall short
'I can't remember the last time we ate,' a father said
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AZAGOR, Niger (CNN) -- After months of weak response, donations to assist famine-stricken Niger have increased to $13 million in the past two weeks -- still far short of what is needed, U.N. officials said.
"We are happy that we're receiving money, but this is happening quite late. The appeal was launched in May, and the matter only started getting attention in July," said Christen Knutson, a spokeswoman for the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs.
A U.N. official said the jump in donations coincided with increased media coverage.
"Over the last few days, the world has finally woken up, but it took graphic images of dying children for this to happen," OCHA Undersecretary-General Jan Egeland said last week.
He said at the time that more donations had been received in 10 days than in the previous 10 months.
The media attention to this latest crisis in Africa followed extensive coverage of the G8 summit in Scotland and the Live 8 concerts earlier this month, which helped highlight poverty on the continent. (Full story)
During a tour of the Niger countryside Thursday, CNN's Jeff Koinange reported that some villages appeared deserted, with citizens opting for cities where aid agencies distribute food.
But in one, Abdulla Omar, 75, was so weak from hunger he could hardly walk. His 10-year-old daughter, Amina, pounded the family's few remaining grains with the fear that her father will starve.
"I can't remember the last time we ate," the father said. We are so hungry."
The United Nations issued warnings about the situation in Niger as far back as November 2004, after the country was devastated by a locust invasion. A later drought that lasted until this month worsened the situation.
But the November donation request was mostly ignored by potential contributors.
The United Nations says 1.2 million people, including 800,000 children, face an immediate risk of starvation. Up to 3.5 million people, about a quarter of Niger's impoverished population, could be facing food shortage.
On May 18 five U.N. agencies -- the World Food Program, UNICEF, the World Health Organization, the Food and Agriculture Organization, and the U.N. Development Program -- launched a consolidated $16 million flash appeal. It was increased to $30.7 million a few days later.
U.N. officials said $9 million has so far been committed, which means countries are legally bound to give the money.
But this represents only about 30 percent required to address the population's immediate needs, they said.
An additional $4 million has been pledged but not yet committed.
So far, Sweden has been the most generous country, with a total of just over $2 million donated to the WFP and the FAO.
The United States is giving about $1.66 million to the WFP, the FAO and UNICEF.
The money will fund a number of initiatives, including food distribution and the training of health workers.
The WFP began a series of airlifts Thursday that will deliver life-saving emergency rations to 80,000 victims. The cargo will also include mobile warehouses, generators and four-wheel drive vehicles.
The relief agency is planning to deliver 23,000 tons of food over the next five weeks. (Full story)
The World Food Program's country director for Niger, Giancarlo Cirri, called the situation "some of the worst hunger I have ever witnessed."
Finding a local solution
On their tour of the countryside, Koinange and his crew came across nomadic herdsman Ousmane Abubakar as he grazed his fast-thinning herd near the carcasses of his 20 dead cows.
Abubakar's cattle provide much-needed food for his two wives and nine children, he said.
"What else can I do? I've been herding cattle for many years. I can't do anything else," Abubakar said.
Seeking a solution to dying herds, the aid agency Oxfam is buying cattle from local herdsmen at a premium and slaughtering the animals to feed people who are most needy.
"It's basically bringing relief to some of the nomadic communities which are very much affected because of the famine, because they've lost most of their herd," said Louis Belanger, an Oxfam spokesman.
Another part of the program offers food vouchers for work so hundreds of starving villagers can get supplies from feeding centers.
Villager Parti Belari picked up rice, sugar, cooking oil and tea from a center under a tree seemingly in the middle of nowhere.
"I'm so happy," Belari said. "Without this, we would surely die."
Belari loaded a donkey and walked away with enough food to feed her five children for a few days as they await long-overdue rain.
"The worst-case scenario for Niger today is if there's no rain in the next two to three weeks," Belanger said. "We're looking at the third year in a row with a very bad harvest, and this would just bring disaster to the country."
CNN's Jeff Koinange and Marie Lora contributed to this report.
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