DAKAR, Oct 21 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Women and children are bearing the brunt of a malnutrition and hunger crisis in Mauritania, while tens of thousands of Malian refugees face food shortages due to a lack of funding, the head of the United Nations World Food Programme said on Wednesday.
Malnutrition has hit emergency levels in six of Mauritania's 15 regions, affecting at least one in six people, and the proportion of malnourished children under five across the country has risen to 14 percent this year from 10 percent in 2014, the WFP said.
Droughts have reduced the availability of nutritious food, and widespread poverty - one in four Mauritanians live on less than $1.25 per day - means many cannot afford to eat healthily, according to WFP Executive Director Ertharin Cousin.
"So many are living close to the edge... women and children are the most vulnerable. A failure to meet the nutritional needs of pregnant women will have a direct impact on the health of their children," Cousin told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
The WFP is providing half a million people with food, cash and food vouchers, and giving pregnant women and young children nutritious food to prevent and treat malnutrition.
One of the poorest and least developed countries in the world, arid Mauritania has suffered from decades of desertification and the under-development of its agricultural sector, and has to import 70 percent of its food.
Around one million people - a quarter of the population - do not have enough food to live healthily, and 200,000 are going hungry and urgently need food aid to survive, the WFP said.
"ALMOST IN TEARS"
Cousin spoke to the Thomson Reuters Foundation after visiting Malian refugees in Mauritania's Mbera camp, where a shortage of donor funding this year has forced the WFP to cut food aid, halving or cancelling rice rations in some months.
Some 50,000 refugees fled to the camp after conflict erupted in 2012 in northern Mali between government forces and Tuareg separatists. The separatists signed a peace deal in June, but simmering violence has prevented refugees from going home.
"This is a population that believes they cannot return home - they are not working, they cannot feed themselves and without support, they will go hungry," Cousin said.
Several women living in the camp told the head of the WFP that they were forced to sell the few possessions they owned in order to feed their families when rations were cut.
"I've looked into the face of a mother, almost in tears, who has absolutely nothing and is struggling to feed her kids... it is the responsibility of not only the WFP, but the global community to support refugees like her," Cousin added.
The camp needs $11 million over the next six months but has received less than half that amount from donors, the WFP said.
Without urgent funding, the U.N. agency will be unable to continue its school meal programme past December, which means more than 150,000 children will miss out on a daily hot meal.
A lack of food could drive people to desperate measures in order to feed themselves, such as parents taking their children out of school and women selling sex, according to Cousin.
"Such stories are repeated far too often when we cannot meet the needs of those who have nothing, and all are they asking for is safety and assistance until they can return home," she said. (Reporting By Kieran Guilbert, editing by Tim Pearce. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's rights, trafficking, corruption and climate change. Visit www.trust.org)
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