DAKAR (Reuters) - Abundant rains in Chad have raised hopes for an end to severe food shortages but the effects will linger and lead to new difficulties across Africa's Sahel region in 2011, aid workers predict.
With signs that neighbouring Niger has also got over the worst of a food crisis triggered by last year's drought, the threat of all-out famine in the semi-arid Sahel zone just south of the Sahara appears to be subsiding.
"The worst has been averted and, with the prospect of a good harvest (this year), we think we should be out of an emergency situation soon," Jean-Luc Siblot, the head of the U.N. World Food Programme (WFP) in Chad, said in a phone interview.
Ten million people across the Sahel have been facing the threat of severe malnutrition until the new harvest in a few weeks time, with aid groups urging donors to plug shortfalls in emergency food supplies.
The WFP has estimated that Chad needs around 100,000 metric tonnes of food aid, of which it has so far received only 70,000 due to scant donor funds. More specific help is also needed to tackle child malnutrition.
The food shortfalls meant farmers had to use depleted reserve cereal stocks to feed their livestock and will now need more than just one good harvest to replenish these stocks, said Jean Francois Caremel of the Action Against Hunger charity in Chad.
Caremel added that many poor families had borrowed heavily to survive the drought. A rich cereal harvest will now lead to lower cereal prices, meaning they will need to sell more crops to make enough money to repay the debts.
"At the end of the day they would be short of food again, although the harvest could be good," Caremel said by telephone from the Chadian capital N'Djamena.
In Niger, the food crisis this year was considered more severe than the last emergency in 2005 -- which killed thousands -- but the United nations said Niger was better prepared to face it in part due to better government cooperation.
In 2005, President Mamadou Tandja played down the hunger threat until media reporting on the scale of the crisis made his position untenable.
The military junta that ousted Tandja in a coup in February was quick to reverse this position and has acknowledged the threat of famine.