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LUBUMBASHI, Democratic Republic of Congo – The United Nations World Food Programme said today it had started dropping food aid from an aircraft into violence-wracked Katanga province in the southeast of the Democratic Republic of Congo – marking the agency’s first food aid airdrops outside Sudan since 1998.

The airdrops of WFP food from an Antonov-12 aircraft near the town of Dubie in Katanga started on Wednesday and are the first ever into the DRC, where WFP usually transports food aid by trucks and airlifts. But the current rains have made it especially difficult to move by road sufficient amounts of food aid to Dubie, where malnutrition rates are increasingly alarming.

A total of 38 metric tons of cereals have been dropped on the airstrip at Dubie, 500 kilometres north of Lubumbashi. In total, 80 tons will be dropped at Dubie to be distributed by a local non-governmental organization to 13,000 internally displaced people (IDPs). A recent nutritional survey by Médecins sans Frontières, which supports hospitals and clinics in Katanga, described the malnutrition rates in three camps as “staggering”.

“We have long been calling attention to the deteriorating situation in Katanga,” said Felix Bamezon, WFP Country Director in DRC. “Over the next three months WFP plans to assist as many as possible of the estimated 220,000 IDPs in the province, but reaching them depends on safe access, security and sufficient resources.”

Last week, WFP completed a distribution of a month’s worth of food rations to IDPs in Dubie. The food took nearly a month to arrive by road – illustrating the logistical nightmare faced by WFP in delivering to the needy in this region.

Since a WFP convoy came under attack last year, transport costs have more than doubled because of insecurity. The dreadful road conditions following the rains and a lack of vehicles also hampers transport. WFP competes for trucks with mining companies, which pay cash in advance. Even when vehicles from Lubumbashi reach Dubie, very few make it back in a condition to turn right around and make new deliveries.

By using a triple bagging technique in place of dropping the bags of food on pallets from aircraft, WFP has made airdrops cheaper than airlifting and slightly less than twice the cost of road transport. In 2005, WFP airdropped 150,000 tons of food into south Sudan and Darfur in the west.

Over the next few weeks, 200 tons of food, including cereals and pulses, will be airdropped. After Dubie, the airdrop operation moves to Mitwaba, where the food will be immediately distributed, and to Sampwe in Katanga.

Malnutrition and mortality rates are above emergency levels in Katanga, where recent offensives against militia groups have driven thousands of people from their homes. But even when they are in camps, people live in fear of attack and most are unable to tend to their fields.

“People are trapped in these camps and our access to them is very difficult because of fighting and very poor roads,” said Bamezon “These airdrops allow us to preposition food for distribution rather than risk long delays bringing food in by road.”

In addition to facing severe security and logistical obstacles, WFP’s operations in DRC are also grossly underfunded. With three months left of its two-and-a-half year Protacted Relief and Recovery Operation in the country, WFP has a critical shortfall of 36 percent or US$69 million of the total of US$191 million required to help up to 1.6 million internally displaced and other vulnerable people.

In March, WFP Executive Director James Morris led a mission with his UNICEF and UNHCR counterparts to the DRC and other countries in the Great Lakes region. The three heads of the largest UN humanitarian agencies jointly urged the international community to match political progress with a new commitment to end the suffering of millions of people.

“It is very hard to raise sufficient funds for our operations in DRC, which is one of the most difficult environments anywhere for humanitarian agencies to operate in because of its size, continued insecurity in the east and a critical lack of even basic infrastructure,” said Bamezon.

From 2000 to 2005, WFP distributed food to a yearly average of 270,000 people throughout Katanga. From January 2006 until March, WFP distributed food to nearly 39,000 IDPs.

In February, helicopters with the United Nations Mission in DRC (MONUC) helped airlift a total of 30 tons of WFP food to thousands of people in Mitwaba, 600 kilometres from Lubumbashi.

The DRC has seen some of the most vicious fighting since World War II. Conflict from 1998 to 2004 cost four million lives and 1,250 people still die every day from largely preventable causes.

Major contributors to WFP’s relief and recovery operation in DRC include: the United States (US$57 million), Canada (US$10 million), Belgium (US$6.9 million), the European Commission (US$6 million), Germany US$4.9 million), Italy (US$3.7 million), Japan (US$3.5 million), Ireland (US$3.5 million), France (US$3.1 million) and the Netherlands (US$2.7 million).