U.S. distributes free food to hundreds of thousands in Niger

The United States relief agencies began distributing free food to hundreds of thousands starved people in Niger, a deeply impoverished West African nation still reeling from its worst food shortage in years, AP reports.

Poor rains and locusts ruined crops two years ago and Niger's people suffered through a massive food crisis in 2005. Crop yields picked up last year but food stores are again dwindling ahead of this year's harvest and the World Food Program said it would begin distributing cereals Friday to 650,000 people in Niger.

"Recovery from a year as difficult as 2005 does not happen overnight," the agency's Niger director, Sory Ouane, said in a statement.

"A significant proportion of the population are still struggling to get back on their feet, despite what was a good harvest at the end of last year. They need a safety net and, together with the government, we are providing it," he said.

West Africa is entering its annual "lean season," when crops from the previous year are exhausted and a fresh harvest is still months away. Prices of staple foods in markets soar, leaving many of the region's most vulnerable people at risk of malnutrition, which can be fatal if left unchecked.

While 2005 was a particularly difficult year across West African countries that sit on the fringe of the Sahara Desert, hunger is chronic and many in the region complain that help only arrives after television images of skinny babies are broadcast overseas.

Humanitarian workers say the problems are endemic and need long-term solutions, such as widespread development and irrigation schemes. Only 10 percent of the land in Niger, with 12 million people, is currently arable. Most food is imported.

Senegal, Mauritania, Mali and Burkina Faso are in similar straits, leaving many millions of people exposed to periods of potentially deadly hunger each year.

"The main challenge now is a long term one - helping to support social and economic development in Niger," said Ouane.

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