With its cereals stocks in the Democratic People's Republic of Korea all but exhausted and little in the pipeline, the World Food Programme today called for urgent international assistance to help feed 6.5 million of the country's hungriest people.
"We are scraping the bottom of the barrel," Masood Hyder, WFP Representative for the DPRK, said in Beijing. "Over four million core beneficiaries - the most vulnerable children, women and elderly people - are now deprived of very vital rations. It’s the middle of the harsh Korean winter and they need more food, not less."
Donors have recently pledged contributions amounting to some 77,000 tonnes*. However, little of this food will arrive before April meaning that for the next two months, almost four million people will be deprived of cereals, which constitute a large share of the basic ‘survival’ ration. Only 75,000 child-bearing women and 8,000 children in orphanages and hospitals may receive WFP cereal distributions in February and March.
"Many of those we cannot help are only consuming two-thirds of the calories they need," Hyder said. "Unless they get help very soon, the damage could be irreparable."
The funding crisis is also forcing the UN agency to drastically scale down food-for-work activities designed to support more than two million North Koreans this year, while WFP-assisted factories producing enriched foods for the malnourished are threatened with closure owing to a shortage of donor-supplied ingredients.
Reduced donations have left WFP, by far the largest aid agency in the country, unable to feed many of its targeted recipients for much of the past two years. "Painstaking gains made in improving nutritional standards since the late 1990s risk being reversed," Hyder said. "That must not happen."
WFP 's 2004 operation seeks 485,000 tonnes of commodities valued at US$171 million. So far, only 140,000 tonnes have been secured - and much less has been delivered.
This most severe round of food aid ration cuts follows months of appeals by WFP for donor support to DPRK. Some 700,000 people did not receive cereals last November. The situation progressively worsened, with the number rising to 2.7 million last month.
The programme targets North Koreans most affected by lack of dietary balance and those who have no means of meeting their minimum caloric or micronutrient requirements. It also aims to assist households worst affected by an economic adjustment process launched in mid-2002.
Most of the poor live in urban areas outside the capital, Pyongyang, and are heavily dependent on a government-run Public Distribution System (PDS) providing just 300 grams per person per day – less than half a survival ration.
Steep increases in the prices of staples supplied through the PDS and in private markets, the inability of many factories to pay full wages and widespread underemployment - unavoidable adverse consequences of the economic reforms - are making it more difficult for large segments of the 23- million population to cope.
A large-scale survey conducted in October 2002 by UNICEF, WFP and the DPRK government found 42 per cent of North Korean children to be suffering from chronic malnutrition, or stunting. This compared to 62 per cent in a 1998 assessment. One third of mothers surveyed were malnourished and anaemic.
WFP has been working on several fronts to try to bridge a portion of the immediate shortfalls, including through loans and possible regional purchases. However, these are temporary solutions and any borrowings would have to be repaid with donations already made for the DPRK.
Unfortunately, current commitments are only sufficient to meet cereal needs for little more than three months. Another rupture in food aid supplies is inevitable in June - the height of the pre-harvest lean season - unless substantial fresh pledges are made rapidly.
Hyder said there had been an improvement in the ability of WFP staff to monitor food aid distributions, but noted that continuing government restrictions made some donors reluctant to provide assistance.
"The humanitarian imperative is especially compelling right now. We have sounded numerous early warnings to try to secure sufficient food promptly for hungry North Koreans. This warning needs to be heard, and quickly acted on."
* The United States (US$26 million), EC-ECHO (US$5 million), Australia (US$2.2 million), Canada (US$750,000) and Norway (US$393,000).