April 29, 2010 / 6:47 AM / 8 years ago

Niger food crisis worse than 2005--UN

* Niger better prepared than in 2005 crisis, U.N. says

* Almost 60 percent of Niger’s people face hunger this year

By George Fominyen

ZINDER, Niger, April 28 (Reuters) - Niger’s food crisis is already worse than the last emergency in 2005 but the West African nation is better prepared to face it, in part due to better government cooperation, the U.N. aid chief said.

John Holmes was speaking on Wednesday at the end of a trip to uranium-producing Niger, where at least 7.8 million people, or nearly 60 percent of the population, will be threatened with severe food shortages this year.

"My impression is that (the food crisis) is worse but the good thing is that the alarm is sounded earlier and we are better prepared than in 2005," Holmes told Reuters.

"The government is extremely cooperative and is not in denial, as was the case with the past administration."

In 2005, President Mamadou Tandja played down the significance of the crisis until media reporting on the scale of the hunger made his position untenable.

The military junta that ousted Tandja in a coup in February was quick to reverse this position, and has gone as far as speaking of famine, a term most aid workers have not yet used.

After failed rains last year, agricultural and pastoral production has collapsed and the United Nations predicts some 10 million people will face food shortages in the Sahel, a region south of the Sahara that has been caught in cycles of similar crises.

But Holmes said that villagers he met near Zinder, some 1,000 km (600 miles) east of the capital Niamey, told him they were facing the worst crisis they had seen since 1984.

"There is food in parts of (Niger) and food in the region (West Africa) but the people don’t just have the money to buy it," Holmes said. The United Nations warned on Tuesday that less than a third of the $190 million it is seeking from international donors to respond to the crisis has been raised.

"It is not catastrophic yet, but it may become catastrophic if we do not act now," Holmes said.

Droughts are recurrent in the Sahel and experts say they could become more frequent due to climate change, leading to further humanitarian crises, if agricultural policies are not improved.

In the United Nations’ 2009 human development index, Niger ranked last out of 182 countries covered. (Writing by David Lewis; Editing by Mark Heinrich)

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