MAURITANIA: Record hunger predicted in 2008

Monday, March 24, 2008

Food security experts predict that Mauritania, where 70 percent of food eaten is imported, may face its highest ever levels of hunger in 2008, and aid agency representatives are concerned they do not have enough money to meet people’s needs amid skyrocketing food prices and dwindling cereals for sale on world markets.

“This could be the year of all dangers. All the shocks may be present - oil price rises, raw material price rises, food commodity price rises, a reorganisation of the main ocean trading routes, as well as a weakening of the dollar,” Giancarlo Cirri, representative of the UN World Food Programme (WFP) told IRIN.

Acute malnutrition already affected 11.9 percent of Mauritanians in 2007, according to a September 2007 ministry of health and UN children’s agency (UNICEF) study. In the country’s 17 worst-affected communes, one in five people was found to lack adequate food.

Cirri predicts the latest government and WFP food security survey, due out in April, will see a 15 percent rise in the number of families with inadequate food to get through the year. “We are now facing a double emergency – escalating prices and dwindling availability of grains,” Cirri said.

According to villagers IRIN spoke to in southern Mauritania’s agricultural belt, oil prices have more than doubled, from US$0.77 per litre in 2007 to US$1.50 a year later.
Wheat and sorghum prices in Mauritania rose by 40 percent from May 2007 to January 2008 while millet prices rose by half. In late 2007, several towns and cities in the vast, desert country were hit by riots over food prices.

The government has allocated US$3.2 million to build up national food security stocks in 2007, and is supplying grain to 1,200 community-based stocks across the country. But Mohamed el Hady at the Commissariat for social protection and food security (CPSSA) told IRIN it does not have enough substantive reserve stocks to meet a large-scale food security crisis in 2008.

“High prices make it increasingly difficult for us to retain the levels country’s central emergency grain reserve,” said Hady.

While donors pledged generous aid sums to the Mauritanian government at a December 2007 conference, promising US$2.6 billion in response to the US$2.1 billion requested, when it comes to food aid, much of this money has “not yet come through”, according to an official familiar with aid budgets in Mauritania.

Meanwhile, aid agency representatives are worried they do not have enough stocks to meet a large-scale crisis. Cirri estimates WFP Mauritania faces a deficit of US$6 million to cover its food security operations between March and July 2008.