SEOUL - The World Food Programme today hailed South Korea's contributions to easing the acute humanitarian crisis in the North, but said new donations were urgently needed for the UN agency's severely under-funded emergency operation that seeks to support 6.5 million particularly vulnerable people there.
"The Republic of Korea has a huge stake in the future of the DPRK [Democratic People's Republic of Korea], and is providing very valuable assistance and leadership to secure a better future," WFP Executive Director James Morris said in Seoul.
"The South's consistently strong support for our work in the North has been a critical factor in our successes there, including a significant reduction in malnutrition rates. It's so important that we have sufficient resources to build on those precious gains, but in recent months we have been forced to cut back rations for the needy."
Shortfalls in donations again this year have obliged WFP to halt vital distributions to millions of the most needy, often for months at a time.
At present, the agency is unable to provide rations of cereals, its staple commodity, to nearly one million North Koreans, for the most part elderly people and poor urban residents. Without fresh pledges, the number will rise 1.3 million in September, 2.9 million in October and 3.2 million in November, and include young children and pregnant and nursing women.
Stocks of other, more nourishing foods are severely depleted. All 1.8 million nursery and kindergarten children, orphans and women of child-bearing age entitled to a daily WFP ration of pulses are now having to go without this crucial source of scarce protein.
No fewer than 2.7 million children, women and elderly people are being deprived of enriched vegetable oil, a key source of the fats that are essential for healthy physical and mental growth.
Shortages of donor-supplied ingredients have also been disrupting production at WFP-supported fortified food factories, whose output is likewise designed to help meet the special dietary needs of millions of young children and pregnant and nursing women.
"This year's food crisis in the North has been exceptionally severe owing to an acute lack of affordable local staples, not least because of record-high cereal prices in private markets," Morris said. "One consequence is a sharp increase in the consumption of wild foods - grasses, brackens, acorns and seaweed - which the young and the old have great difficulty digesting."
Morris was speaking at the end of a two-day visit to the South Korean capital that included meetings with Foreign Minister Ban Ki-moon, Vice Unification Minister Lee Bong-jo, and government and opposition members of the National Assembly.
While lauding the South's recent pledges of bilateral assistance to the North - including 350,000 tonnes of fertiliser and 500,000 tonnes of rice - he argued that food aid channeled through WFP is the best way to reach the most vulnerable.
"The World Food Programme is by far the largest humanitarian agency in the DPRK, and over the past 10 years we have progressively refined our targeting and monitoring mechanisms there to ensure the aid donors provide goes to the hungriest of the hungry."
Morris noted that a new WFP monitoring system designed to better track the movement of food commodities from arrival to consumption, and allow greater access to distributions and more random access to beneficiaries, had been endorsed by the DPRK government and is now being implemented.
"But it cannot be as effective as we hope without adequate levels of multilateral assistance to support it from donors like South Korea."
WFP needs additional donations amounting to 140,000 tonnes of commodities to be able to fully implement its DPRK operation for the remainder of the year.
The Republic of Korea has committed 100,000 tonnes of maize for the North through the UN agency in each of the last four years.
A large-scale random sample last October by WFP, UNICEF and the DPRK found that the rate of chronic malnutrition among young children had declined to 37 per cent, from 42 per cent in 2002 and 62 per cent in 1998.
"While that progress is impressive, there is clearly much more to be done," Morris said. "The risk of a reversal is real."
WFP is the world's largest humanitarian agency: each year, we give food to an average of 90 million poor people to meet their nutritional needs, including 56 million hungry children, in at least 80 of the world's poorest countries. WFP -- We Feed People.
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