U.N. calls for urgent aid to Sahel as hunger crisis looms

DAKAR (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Five million people in West Africa’s Sahel region will need food aid in the coming months following a drought, but current funding will be insufficient to prevent starvation, the United Nations said on Thursday.

Six countries in the Sahel, a semi-arid belt below the Sahara, are facing the worst hunger in years after poor rains caused little vegetation to grow, U.N. agencies said.

The peak of the crisis has not yet hit, but more supplies must be ordered now to prevent deaths from malnutrition in June and July, said the U.N. children’s agency UNICEF.

“For once, the agencies and our partners are calling for action before the tragedy,” UNICEF’s regional director Marie-Pierre Poirier told journalists in Senegal’s capital Dakar.

“We must act now, immediately, to avoid children dying.”

More than 1.6 million children in the region are at risk of severe acute malnutrition, 50 percent more than during the Sahel’s last major food crisis in 2012, UNICEF said.

The agency expects it will need 1.3 million packets of therapeutic food to save the most vulnerable, but it has only been able to order 700,000 so far, said Poirier.

The area at risk includes parts of Mali, Niger, Burkina Faso, Chad, southern Mauritania and northern Senegal.

The Sahel has only one growing season, so if it goes poorly due to climate shocks or conflict people must survive on whatever they have until the next one, said Abdou Dieng, regional director of the World Food Programme (WFP).

This year, many families have already exhausted food stocks meant to last until September, and herders have been forced to migrate four months early in search of grass, U.N. agencies said.

“We are hearing of people cutting down the number of daily meals and children dropping out of school,” said Dieng.

“If we don’t do anything for these people, what will they do? Die, or join terrorist groups, or migrate,” he said.

Various conflicts in the region, home to a number of Islamist militant groups, have exacerbated the situation and will make it difficult to provide aid, he added.

Collectively, WFP, UNICEF and the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization said they need $676 million to respond.