Page last updated at 15:42 GMT, Wednesday, 9 September 2009 16:42 UK

Guatemala declares hunger crisis

Child in Guatemalan hospital in Jalapa
Almost half of Guatemala's children suffer chronic malnutrition

Guatemalan President Alvaro Colom has declared a "state of public calamity" to try to mobilise funding to tackle severe food shortages in the country.

Officials say 54,000 families living in an area prone to extreme weather are in a critical situation.

So far this year, some 25 children are believed to have died of hunger.

The UN's World Food Programme (WFP) announced it would start distributing 20 tonnes of nutritional biscuits to the worst affected areas.

President Colom made his announcement on Tuesday, saying the declaration of a state of public calamity would help the government to access the funding and resources needed to tackle the food crisis.

"There is food, what is lacking is the money for the affected people to buy food," Mr Colom said. "We are not going to wait until we've reached starvation levels to act."

The move allows the government to make emergency purchases of food.

'Dry corridor'

Officials say the crisis has been caused by a combination of adverse weather, poor soil and the effects of the global economic downturn.

The worst affected areas are in what is known as the "dry corridor" in the east of the country.

Some 54,000 families there are suffering severe food shortages, after the failure of their crops of corn and beans.

Authorities say a further 300,000 people in this region could also be heading for shortages of food this year.

The WFP, which operates a feeding programme in Guatemala for some 350,000 people, was to begin distributing high energy biscuits.

According to the UN's children's agency, Unicef, almost half of Guatemala's children suffer chronic malnutrition.

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