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El Nino spreads food crisis to 37 countries - FAO
By Jude Webber, Reuters

A near-record number of countries face food supply emergencies this year, mainly because of the effects of the El Nino weather phenomenon, the U.N.'s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) warned Wednesday. “Although cereal production in developing countries in 1997 is estimated to have declined only slightly from the good level of the previous year, the number of countries facing food emergencies has increased to 37 compared to 31 toward the end of last year, mainly due to the effects of El Nino,” FAO said.

The Rome-based agency, in a January/February Food Outlook, painted a grim picture of food supply woes stretching through Africa, Asia, Latin America, parts of the former Soviet Union and including Iraq and North Korea. It listed a catalogue of crises, sparked by the searing droughts in some areas and punishing floods and erratic rains in others that are associated with the El Nino weather phenomenon. Africa, it noted, remained the continent with the most acute food shortages as a result of a combination of adverse weather and civil strife, which has hit countries such as Liberia and Sierra Leone where food production was starting to pick up. El Nino, which is expected to peak before mid-year and then dissipate, arises from a warm weather current in the Pacific off South America. But even when it has gone, problems may continue with the forecast arrival of La Nina, a cold weather event.

FAO said torrential rains associated with El Nino in Somalia in late October last year caused serious floods and deaths that, coming disastrously on the back of a succession of poor harvests, was a further big blow to its fragile food security. Kenya has suffered floods and an outhbreak of Rift Valley Fever that has reportedly spread from livestock to humans and has resulted in human deaths and substantial animal losses. Crop losses as a result of El Nino-provoked weather conditions hit Uganda, Tanzania and Ethiopia in east Africa. A delay in the onset of the rainy season and then floods compounded persistent food insecurity in Burundi and problems in Rwanda in central Africa. “The outlook for the 1998 first season crops, now being harvested, is uncertain,” FAO said. Opposite fears of an El Nino-inspired drought had hit southern Africa, it added. FAO said malnutrition remained a serious problem in Iraq, despite the easing of the food supply with oil-for-food sales allowed by the United Nations.

Turning to Asia, FAO said drought, coupled with a destructive typhoon coming on top of two years of floods, had caused a “most desperate food situation'' in North Korea. Aid workers say millions may soon starve to death there. El Nino-related droughts had also hit cereal production in China, the Philippines, Thailand, Papua New Guinea and the Pacific Rim. In Indonesia, more than nearly one million acres of paddy were reportedly damaged by heat and drought, cutting forecast 1997 production by 1.3 million tons.

A dry spell sparked by El Nino severely affected first season cereal crops in El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua and Panama. Persistent bad weather hurt second season crops too, failing to ease the situation. FAO said the food supply situation remained tight in Haiti, where cereal production is substantially lower after a prolonged drought, and torrential rains have hit the Dominican Republic. Among former Soviet states, food aid was still needed for refugees and the elderly in Tajikistan, as well as in Armenia, Azerbaijan and Georgia, the report added.