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NIGER-CRS Aug-16-2005 (500 words) . With graphic posted Aug. 12 and photos Aug. 16. xxxi

CRS begins food distribution in drought-stricken Niger

By Stephen Steele
Catholic News Service

WASHINGTON (CNS) -- After the first delivery of emergency food aid was made in her province in drought-stricken Niger, a mother told a Catholic Relief Services worker, "We're going to eat until we can't eat anymore."

"She had been eating nothing but leaves and weeds for months," said G. Jefferson Price III, a communications consultant for CRS. "Her family was probably on the brink of starvation."

In a telephone interview with Catholic News Service, Price said that while there was a festive atmosphere in the Kawa Fako village in the Dogondoutchi province, where the Aug. 11 food distribution took place, there were clear signs of chronic malnutrition and suffering.

Price said he saw children with distended stomachs and red tints in their hair, two of the telltale signs of malnourishment.

"The people were is desperate straits," he said. "There was a lot of listlessness among the people, especially the children."

International aid workers hope they can improve the situation in Niger, where a long-term drought and the invasion of swarms of locusts destroyed crops and placed many people on the brink of starvation. In Dogondoutchi, the hardest-hit province, CRS, the U.S. bishops' international relief and development agency, began distributing more than 991 metric tons of emergency food supplies.

The food -- millet, beans and cooking oil -- was purchased by CRS in Niamey, Niger's capital, at a cost of $640,000. It was paid for by the Irish government, the aid agencies of the British, Welsh, Scottish and Dutch bishops' conferences, and the Fred D. Snite Foundation. Further distributions were to be carried out when World Food Program supplies arrived.

Price said he spoke with several nursing mothers who said they were no longer producing milk for their children. He said the women worried about their children's health.

"Toddlers could barely stand up, and they were constantly clutching at their mother's breasts," he said.

Residents told him that their basic sustenance for months has been tea brewed from leaves and weeds.

"All the people we spoke to said the same thing. No crops have come in because there has been no rain, and they haven't had any money to buy goods on the market. And because there's such a shortage of goods the price of things has skyrocketed," he said.

CRS will continue the distribution in Dogondoutchi until Aug. 21, providing enough aid to help about 42,500 people. The rations were meant to last each family for about 40 days, Price said.

In addition to the food deliveries, CRS is receiving an air shipment of 40 metric tons of Atmit, a nutritionally enhanced mix for malnourished children, along with 10 metric tons of vegetable oil.

The Atmit was donated by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and the cost of delivery was paid by CRS donors and the Latter-day Saints. CRS will turn the Atmit over to Helen Keller International, its partner, to administer the therapeutic feeding of 7,000 severely malnourished children, Price said.


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