DAKAR (AlertNet) – About 150,000 people are suffering from severe hunger in Mauritania, and the number could rise as the country faces critical food shortages in the coming months, a top aid official has warned.
Mauritania is the latest country in West Africa’s Sahel region at risk of a food crisis after erratic rains affected production. At least 10 million people are threatened by food shortages in Niger and Chad.
“The numbers in Mauritania may be smaller (compared) to the millions in other countries but the thousands affected are literally almost starving,” said Guy Gauvreau, country director for the U.N. World Food Programme (WFP) in Mauritania.
He said most of those affected are taking extreme measures to cope, including cutting their daily meals from three to one.
“They don’t have the money to buy food and there will be no food to buy … it will be a critical situation from March to August,” he told AlertNet in a telephone interview from the capital, Nouakchott.
WFP estimates the number of hungry people could rise to 250,000, with food shortages expanding from the south of the country to the north.
Mauritania has a population of 3.3 million and is one of the world’s least developed nations, ranking 154 out of 182 countries in the 2009 U.N. Human Development Index. The largely desert northwest African country depends heavily on drought-prone agriculture.
A food security assessment by the U.N. agency and the government, which was conducted in February and released this week, says the harvest is 24 percent lower than a year ago due to a lack of seeds.
Mauritania already suffers from chronic food insecurity because it produces only a quarter of the food it consumes.
The authorities say they can manage the current situation, and plan to distribute 6,000 tonnes of food to the most vulnerable people in the south, focusing on areas near the border with Mali and Senegal. But WFP is concerned about dwindling supplies of food aid.
“Unfortunately, we do not have enough food in our warehouse … the timing is bad because our reserves are depleting and the demand is increasing,” Gauvreau said.
He added that WFP needs $10 million to purchase an extra 10,000 tonnes of cereals and other food to tackle the worst of the looming crisis in Mauritania.
Other U.N. agencies in the country fear that food shortages and poor nutrition could threaten children’s lives by making them more vulnerable to diseases like measles. There are outbreaks of measles in 30 out of 53 health districts, which have caused at least seven deaths.