UN: Number of Haitians needing food aid spikes amid drought

AP News
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Posted: Feb 09, 2016 6:20 PM

PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti (AP) — Drought-stricken Haiti is grappling with its most serious food crisis in 15 years as the number of people in need of urgent food aid has recently spiked, the head of the U.N. World Food Program's country office said Tuesday.

Roughly 1.5 million Haitians are considered severely insecure when it comes to food, more than double the figure of those facing malnutrition from a government assessment in September. Haiti's northwest, southeast and some areas on the border with the Dominican Republic have been hit hard amid a long drought that has been worsened by the arrival of a strong El Nino weather pattern.

The World Food Program's country director, Wendy Bigham, called the situation alarming. A growing number of families will need to sell off possessions to feed themselves or have to significantly reduce the daily amounts they eat, she said.

In a phone interview, Bigham described it as "the most serious food crisis facing Haiti since 2001," when methodical data collection began to assess food security in the Western Hemisphere's poorest country.

In 2008, violent food riots by Haitians toppled a prime minister. But the World Bank noted last year that extreme poverty fell in Haiti over the last decade, especially in urban areas.

Parched Haiti is struggling with its third year of drought. The situation has deteriorated because of a lack of rain blamed on a particularly strong El Nino, a warming of the tropical Pacific that affects global weather. The current pattern began last year.

The World Food Program, which relies on contributions and tries to mobilize assistance for countries around the globe, intends to ramp up its food assistance for 1 million Haitians by distributing cash and, to a lesser extent, rations.

While Haiti imports half of its food needs, local harvests are critical for numerous families. If Haiti continues to be parched by drought in the next few months, Haitian farmers will lose their fourth consecutive harvest, Bigham said.

Forecasts indicate a 100 percent chance that El Nino will remain until at least April, according to the Famine Early Warning Systems Network, a U.S.-government financed program that tracks weather patterns, agricultural production and food prices in an effort to offset famine.

Haitian officials could not be reached for comment on the World Food Program's statement on Tuesday, which was a holiday for the final day of Carnival.

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David McFadden on Twitter: www.twitter.com/dmcfadd