DAKAR, Oct 1 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Pestilence, cyclical droughts and floods, and the West Africa Ebola crisis have pushed hunger to record levels in Gambia, where 200,000 people need urgent food assistance, the United Nations says.
Tourism is a significant source of income for the country, and even though Gambia has not seen cases of Ebola, the outbreak in the region has caused visitor numbers to plummet by 60 percent compared to last year, said Ade Mamonyane Lekoetje, the U.N. representative for Gambia.
"In 2011-12 we had the floods and droughts, then in 2013 we had the birds eating all the crops, and now we have Ebola threatening the tourist industry, a lifeline to farmers who need to top up their household income," Lekoetje told the Thomson Reuters Foundation at a donor gathering in Dakar.
"The government is keen to emphasise Gambia is Ebola-free," she added, noting that the true impact of the outbreak will not be known until after the tourist high season from October to April.
She said a third of the country's 1.8 million people are struggling to have three square meals a day and many have had to sell cattle and take children out of school to buy food.
Ebola - which has killed more than 3,000 people in Sierra Leone, Liberia and Guinea since March - has compounded Gambia's woes. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention say some 1.4 million are at risk in the region without immediate action.
Gambia says it has mounted surveillance along its borders, halted air travel from Guinea, Sierra Leone and Liberia, and launched an aggressive Ebola awareness campaign.
"The problem is that tourists tend to think about Africa or West Africa as homogenous, not as individual countries. So Ebola in Sierra Leone has a negative impact on Gambia and other countries in the region," Lekoetje said.
A sliver of a country sandwiched between northern and southern Senegal, Gambia's beaches are popular among European sunseekers, many of them British. Tourism contributes one-fifth of GDP, according to the CIA Factbook.
Yet U.N. figures indicate more than a third of Gambians live on less than $1.25 a day.
Malnutrition of children under the age of five is at a 10-year high of 25 percent - 10 percent higher than the emergency threshold of 15 percent set by the World Health Organization, according to latest U.N. figures.
EAT WHAT YOU GROW
The U.N. says that some 20 million people are at risk of hunger throughout the Sahel belt stretching from Senegal to Chad, but officials were surprised to see Gambia hit so hard.
"This is a newly emerging phenomenon in Gambia because until now they have been able to manage and be food secure either through agriculture or through other means of livelihood," said Robert Piper, U.N. coordinator for the Sahel.
Meanwhile, Gambia is pushing to be self-sufficient in the food sector by 2016, regardless of the weather in a country where 80 percent of the population depends on agriculture, said Minister for Social Welfare Omar Sey.
"We are encouraging every Gambian to grow what you eat and eat what you grow, so that we can be food self-sufficient by 2016. Rice and other commodities that can be grown in the Gambia will not be imported," Sey told the Thomson Reuters Foundation at the donor meeting.
"Gambia will no longer need to depend on rain irrigation as the government is moving to take water from the River Gambia, which divides the country in two, as a more reliable source of water."
(Reporting By Misha Hussain, Editing by Alisa Tang)
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