Aid agencies in scramble to help famine-hit Niger

The World Food Programme announced that a much-needed airlift of food commodities from Réunir, a French aid agency, had arrived in Maradi, one of the hardest-hit areas of the country.

An estimated 3.6 million people are highly vulnerable and 2.5 million are in need of food aid. But more than 150,000 children may now starve to death before they get access to emergency food and medication.

Jan Egeland, the under-secretary general of the UN, said yesterday that if the international community had responded to Niger's appeals for help last year, a child could have been saved from malnourishment for as little as $1 (57p) a day. Now, it will cost eighty times as much to save each of the 150,000 children who are on the verge of starving to death. He said: "We will get funding for Niger, images are coming out of children dying. But it is too late for those who are severely malnourished and dying."

Both rich countries and the government of Niger have been criticised for ignoring the plight of 3.5 million people who were left without food after a plague of locusts and a drought destroyed their crops last year. The Niger President, Mamadou Tandja, has visited the worst-hit areas in the south of the country to assess the situation personally, after the government had earlier refused to donate free food to the starving. The government had downplayed the danger of famine to secure the presidential elections held at the end of last year.

Meanwhile Oxfam has launched an appeal to raise £1m for the region - it wants to distribute food vouchers to 130,000 people and help 28,000 herders to buy new animals to replace those that starved to death. Others are providing oil, maize and a nutritionally fortified peanut butter paste to the thousands of people who have walked for several days to reach feeding centres.

The British Government has so far donated £2m. Hilary Benn, the Secretary of State for International Development, said: "There is now a substantial humanitarian operation under way."

France, Niger's former colonial power, has said it will give a total of €5m (£3.5m). The UN first warned of a food crisis in Niger in November last year, but received almost no funding. It has since raised $11m - a third of the total it needs to manage the situation.

Niger, a landlocked, desert country, suffers from frequent crop failure and its people endure food shortages every year, but last year's locusts and droughts destroyed entire harvests in the south of the country.

Environmentalists said that the rains could fail again this October, spreading the famine across other regions.

Toby Porter, from the charity Save the Children, said that as the second poorest country in the world, Niger exists on the brink of disaster. "We can't allow people to live in such a state of poverty that it just takes this minor shock to tilt children and their families to this dreadful state," he said.

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