DAKAR — Light rains, poor harvests and overpriced food will combine to create a severe famine for five Sahel countries if urgent, large-scale measures are not taken, experts warn.
"The crisis is already here. All you can do is try to lessen its impact on people, especially ... the most vulnerable," said Thomas Yanga, head of the WFP's west African regional office.
Niger, Chad, Mauritania, Burkina Faso and Mali face the worst threat, while Senegal and Gambia are also at risk, he said.
Between five million and seven million people face food insecurity and need immediate assistance in the Sahel, the southern rim of the Sahara, Yanga said.
The Oxfam food charity estimates six million people in Niger and 2.9 million in Mali "live in areas vulnerable to the coming crisis," and 700,000 in Mauritania are at risk of severe food insecurity.
According to unofficial figures, nearly two million people are going hungry in Burkina Faso, and 13 of Chad's 22 regions "could be affected," Oxfam said.
"The situation is looking extremely worrying for millions of people in west Africa, but the worst is not yet inevitable," it added. "The crisis has been identified early, and we know that there are cost-effective measures that can be taken now to protect those most vulnerable. This time we can act before the emergency hits."
Rains in the Sahel have been sporadic, and remittances sent from relatives abroad have diminished, Oxfam said, adding that food prices have gone up an average of 40 percent since 2006.
Niger is already seeing people displaced by hunger.
Dari Harouna, who fled to Niamey from southwestern Tillaberi in order to survive, told AFP: "In my village there's no more to eat. Everyone has fled, even women and children. There are only old people left."
In Chad, authorities estimate a grain shortfall of 650,000 tonnes, especially in western Kanem where "the situation is truly alarming," said its governor, Ngamaye Djari, noting that the province took in more than 10,000 "returnees" from the conflict in Libya.
"The able-bodied have left the region for the south of the country," unable to farm the land, he said.
"What I saw in my field this year were stalks that were devoured by insects," said Abdoulaye Malimy, a farmer from Kanem. "If nothing is done for us we will die."
The Sahel has drought every four or five years on average, said Mamadou Biteye of Oxfam in Dakar.
Some countries have adopted plans to address the crisis and have sought aid from the United Nations, the European Union and charities to avoid a repeat of the food crisis of 2009-10 that affected some 10 million people.
Mauritania, Niger, Mali and Burkina Faso are planning to distribute free or low-cost food, seed and farming equipment.
Ouagadougou will start distributing free food in January, predicting that by March or April "some modest families will have serious difficulties facing food needs," Burkina Faso Agriculture Minister Laurent Sedogo told AFP.
The UN Children's Fund (UNICEF) is planning an intervention in eight Sahel countries for children threatened with malnutrition, while France will provide 10 million euros ($13 million) in emergency food aid for the Sahel to WFP.
"What is undertaken today will determine whether a new major food crisis will occur" in the region, said Vincent Taillandier, an official of Action Against Hunger.
"But it's the cumulative effect of the current situation, less than two years after the last big food crisis, which presages the worst crisis since 2005."
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