The United Nations said on Tuesday that more than 10 million hungry people across Africa's drought-stricken Sahel region need help and appealed for $230 million for impoverished Niger, which has been hardest hit.
Niger, one of the poorest countries in Africa, has been most severely affected, with more than 7 million people, almost 50 per cent of the population, suffering from a lack of food, UN humanitarian chief John Holmes said.
"The levels of food insecurity have begun to spiral out of control and affect a number of countries across the region," he said.
This crisis is worse than 2005, when drought and locusts afflicted Niger, which is perched on the southern edge of the Sahara desert and has suffered cyclical drought for centuries, Holmes said. The 2005 crisis left 3.6 million hungry.
Besides Niger, Holmes said 1.6 million people in the central and western regions of Chad, up to 600,000 in Mali, 300,000 in Mauritania, and smaller numbers in Burkina Faso, northern Cameroon and northern Nigeria also urgently need food.
He said fodder is also needed to keep their livestock, and livelihood, from dying.
The UN initially appealed for $190 million for Niger this year and had commitments for over $142 million. On Tuesday, it raised its appeal to over $371 million because of the deteriorating humanitarian situation in the country.
"We are still $230 million short, and we urgently need to mobilize those resources to avert what could be a humanitarian catastrophe if we do not act in time," Holmes told a special briefing for UN member states on the food and malnutrition crisis in the Sahel, the semiarid region south of the Sahara desert. Josette Sheeran, executive director of the UN World Food Program, told the briefing by phone from Niger's capital Niamy that "this is a catastrophic drought" and "we need support now." Unlike the 2005 drought when Niger's then-President Mamadou Tandja lashed out at humanitarian agencies and opposition parties for allegedly fabricating "false propaganda" for political and economic gain, Sheeran said the military junta that ousted him in February has fully acknowledged the problem "and it's being confronted head-on."
The region has long been affected by food shortages, poverty and drought, but Holmes said the current situation is the result of successive years of drought and poor rainfall caused by climate change.
"Last year's very poor rains, in particular at the end of 2009, resulted in failed crops and a severe drop in cereal harvests and fodder production in many areas of all the countries (affected), on top of the existing vulnerabilities," Holmes said. "The resulting situation is having a very severe, immediate and potentially long-term effects for both the local population and their livestock."
According to the UN humanitarian office, donors have so far pledged 45 percent of the $542 million appeal for Chad this year and just 24 percent of the $724 million appeal for West Africa.