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Africans learn new ways to fight locusts

"THE LOCUSTS invaded at 4 p.m. At first, the villagers used the traditional methods of fire and shouting, but it didn't work, and we were very afraid."

Hama Ongoiba from Bandiagara, a remote desert parish in Mali, in West Africa, remembers locusts "breaking off branches as they passed through". He says that nearly all the harvest was destroyed in 48 hours - millet, sorghum, vegetables, and peanuts.

"After the disaster, 90 per cent of the young people over 15 fled, hoping to find somewhere else to work and make money. Those who stayed have gone to other villages, where the harvest has not been destroyed, to help them with the harvest and return to us with what food and money they can bring. So far, we have received no help from the government - only words and promises."

Christian Aid is among the organisations addressing the problem. Twenty-eight new teams in the Bandiagara area are being taught to protect crops from future locust attacks. People are being taught how to collect and bury locust eggs, to prevent them from hatching and flying away. The Christian Aid partner organisation Action for Human Promotion then gives millet in exchange for the burial of eggs.

Christian Aid is one of the ten agencies from the Disasters Emergency Committee (DEC), which are working on the Niger Appeal. This targets four countries in West Africa that are among the poorest in the world - Niger, Mali, Burkina Faso, and Mauritania. Last week, the DEC thanked the British public for its fast response to its Niger Crisis Appeal, which has so far raised £17 million.

"We are delighted to see that people have once again responded generously to a vitally important appeal," said the DEC's chief executive, Brendan Gormley. "Concerns are often raised about the fear of donor fatigue, particularly following on from the very recent tsunami tragedy, but families across the UK have once again proved that they want to and can help."

The food shortage is affecting nearly eight million people. Thousands of children are severely malnourished, and many are believed to have died already. Niger is the worst affected, with up to 2.5 million of its population of 12 million estimated to be at risk of severe hunger. The crisis has been developing since last August, when a first massive locust invasion swept the area during the growing season, and destroyed the harvest. This, combined with severe drought, has left the population with little food.

Some of the DEC agencies have begun immediately with food distribution. There are three types of distribution, setting up centres in tents.

Three British Red Cross flights have delivered food for 23,000 malnourished children. Islamic Relief has distributed 108 tonnes of food aid. CARE International is donating about 11,000 tonnes of food; and Concern has established a nutrition programme that will treat 300 children every day.

Animals are also suffering from the food shortages: cattle carcasses can be seen lying on the ground. Oxfam has a de-stocking scheme, which is targeting 130,000 people. This involves buying weak cattle, killing them, and employing people to dry and cure the flesh, which can be used for food.

DEC agencies are hoping to prevent the diseases that arise from a lack of food, such as cholera, typhoid, and diarrhoea. Save the Children has sent a plane carrying emergency health kits, sachets of rehydrating salts for dehydrated children, mosquito nets, malaria-testing kits, and Vitamin A tablets for malnourished children and pregnant women.

ActionAid is trying to prevent future crises by investigating early-warning systems that can alert people to disaster. World Vision is developing market gardens to improve production during the dry season.

"Money raised is already saving lives of those facing hunger in Niger, Mali, Mauritania, and Burkina Faso," Mr Gormley said. "We want to encourage people to continue to donate. Sadly, the need in West Africa is huge."

Agency calls for preventative action
The Christian development agency Tearfund has called on governments and donors to do more to prevent problems from escalating in the first place.

Its disaster-management director, Marcus Oxley, spoke last week of the DEC's Niger appeal: "We must recognise that lives could have been saved if simple, cost-effective measures had been put in place to protect vulnerable communities. Much more needs to be done to address the root causes of poverty, which make the world's poorest countries so vulnerable when disasters occur."

Tearfund stresses the need to cancel debt repayments, deliver more and better aid, and make trade work for the poor.

Donations to the DEC Niger Crisis Appeal can be made at (phone 0870 60 60 900), or at banks and post offices.

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