A deepening food crisis in the eastern Sahel threatens half of Niger's 14 million people. The International Federation of the Red Cross says it needs an additional $3.3 million to provide much-needed assistance.
A new assessment, released by Niger's government in May, says severe food shortages are now threatening 3.3 million people in the country, up from last December's projection of 2.7 million.
Aid workers say the food crisis is a result of irregular rainfall in 2009 that led to poor harvests and severe lacks of water and grazing land for animals. The West African country of Niger is the hardest hit, and in total more than seven million people there are suffering from food shortages.
The International Federation of the Red Cross says increased aid is needed to provide critical, and potentially life-saving assistance to 385,000 people across Niger.
The federation's food security delegate to Niger, Victor Sogodas, says the vulnerable population has grown, and certain people not affected before are now in danger, especially in urban areas. He says more children under age five are also in danger. He says the current situation is serious and if we do not intervene quickly, we will be facing a real disaster.
The Red Cross has been on the ground since March in the Tahoua, Diffa and Zinder provinces of southern Niger. Working with the U.N. World Food Program, the Red Cross says it has distributed food to more than 12,000 people and plans to reach another 100,000 by mid-July.
Sogodas says pressure has also grown on urban areas, like the capital Niamey, due to a mass rural exodus of people in search of food.
Niger is one of the poorest countries in the world, and hunger rates were already high among the country's children.
Relief workers say the current situation for children under age five in Niger has reached emergency levels. Some regions are already reporting high rates of malnutrition, which can have lasting effects on a child's mental and physical development.
Sogodas says parents are increasingly unable to get enough food for their children. He says many families live far away from health centers so there is a delay in screening and treating children for malnutrition. He says the situation getting more serious than anticipated, and we need more money to take care of all these children. He says, for example, we need ambulances so we can get to treat children whose parents live faraway and do not have the money or means to get to a health center.
The agency says it plans to extend its "cash for work" program in Niger to provide vouchers for food and cash to stimulate the local market, which it says has food but no customers to buy it.
The federation is also working with communities to find long-term solutions, such as sustainable farming techniques and irrigation methods, to break the cycle of repeated food shortages in the region.