4 Million People Face 'Acute Food Insecurity' In Troubled Haiti, Says UN Food Agency Official

UNITED NATIONS (AP) -- Four million people face "acute food insecurity" and one million of them are one step away from famine, the U.N. food agency's director in the conflict-wracked Caribbean nation said Tuesday.

Jean-Martin Bauer told a virtual press conference that he's "ringing the alarm bell" because the recent increase in gang violence has made a very bad situation even worse and displaced an additional 15,000 people -- just over the first weekend in March in the capital, Port-au-Prince.

That brings the total number of displaced people in Haiti to over 360,000, he said, and the U.N. says half of them are children. The country has more than 11 million inhabitants.

Bauer said, there were 4 million food insecure and hungry Haitians during the COVID pandemic in 2020 and that number hasn't gone down, but the number on the brink of famine has escalated to one million.

Port-au-Prince has been turned into "a bubble" where gangs control the roads, the port and airport are closed, and no one can get in or get out, Bauer said.

The World Food Program director said the agency and its partners started a hot meal service for newly displaced people in the capital, starting with 2,000 meals a day and now up to nearly 14,000 meals a day.

But he said the WFP warehouse will run out of supplies in a few weeks unless the port is reopened to replenish the agency's stocks.

Haiti depends on food imports for 50% of its food supply, and Bauer said WFP can confirm that the cost of a food basket is rising in Port-au-Prince as well as elsewhere in Haiti.

There were disturbances in January and food prices jumped 25% in the south where roadblocks came up and trucks weren't able to get to Port-au-Prince with basic necessities, he said, and there was a scarcity of propane which is the basic fuel, including for cooking.

In recent days, because of the gang violence, food prices have jumped at least 10%, Bauer said.

The economy in rural areas outside the capital depends on links to Port-au-Prince, he said, and food prices have also risen elsewhere in the country because of disrupted trade.

A WFP survey found that as prices go up household incomes are going down because people can't go to work, are "sheltering in place," and aren't earning money, Bauer said.

Asked about the impact of Prime Minister Ariel Henry's resignation, which will take effect once a transitional presidential council is created, Bauer said he isn't good at reading political dynamics "but we certainly hope that there will be an improvement in security."

Insecurity is hampering people from doing very simple things right now like taking their children to school, or going to the supermarket or work which are "extremely risky," he said.

Speaking from Cap Haitien in northern Haiti, Bauer stressed, however, that the focus can't just be on security,

"We also need a robust humanitarian response," he said.

But the U.N.'s $674 million humanitarian appeal for Haiti this year is just 2.6% funded.

On a positive note, Bauer said thanks to supplies WFP can purchase from local farmers, it was able to feed about 160,000 school children on Monday in north and south Haiti and other calm areas, part of an ongoing program.

He said despite difficulties of access because of the violence, WFP has been able to deliver money to some of Haiti's poorest on their mobile phones.

U.N. spokesman Stephane Dujarric said Tuesday that many health facilities have been forced to shut down because of the gang violence.

Blood shortages persist at the National Blood Transfusion Center and efforts are underway to bring in blood from the neighboring Dominican Republic, he said.