The International Federation of the Red Cross is asking for $1 million in international assistance to head off a severe food crisis in Niger that threatens more than seven million people.
As many as 10 million people across the Sahel region in West Africa are facing food shortages in coming months caused by irregular rains and poor harvests in 2009.
Aid workers say Niger will be the hardest hit with more than half of its 15 million people at risk, most of whom live on less than one dollar a day.
The International Federation of the Red Cross is calling for almost one million dollars to assist 300,000 villagers in the country's most vulnerable areas; the Diffa, Zinder and Tahoua regions along the country's southeastern border.
Red Cross regional representative for Sahel countries, Daniel Sayi, says it is important to act now to head off a repeat of the 2005 food crisis in Niger, during which aid workers say delays in humanitarian relief led to needless deaths.
Sayi says in 2005, humanitarian response to the food crisis did not begin until after images of severely malnourished children in Niger appeared in international media. He says today, in 2010, we have not yet reached this point, but all the warning signs for a similar severe crisis are there once this food shortage hits its peak in June, or possibly before. He says we should not wait for a repeat of the images of 2005 in June before we act.
Some of the first warning signs came in mid-December when a study by Niger's government revealed that by the end of January, more than half of rural households would have already used up their stores of grain.
The U.S. funded Famine Early Warning Systems Network says this January the number of malnourished children admitted to feeding centers in Niger jumped by 60 percent, compared to the same month last year.
Red Cross Disaster Management Coordinator for West and Central Africa Youcef Ait-Chellouche, says it is alarming that families were employing these emergency coping mechanisms as early as December, only months after the October harvest.
"Now already 20 percent of the population have exhausted their stocks, and they are trying to survive by sending people, part of their family, to other places to work and bring money back or by selling what is not necessary," said Youcef Ait-Chellouche.
Ait-Chellouche says even then it is the rich who can afford to travel via buses and taxis in search of food.
"The poorest in general stay where they are, and they try to face the situation as best they can, in general with a lot of mortality," said Ait-Chellouche.
In February, the International Federation of the Red Cross launched its nine-month relief operation with $200,000 of its own funds to support nutritional centers, distribute seeds and finance cash-for-work projects to boost food production in 120 villages in the three most at-risk regions along the country's southeastern border.
Ait-Chellouche says it is a question of intervening early in the crisis to prevent poor families from selling their belongings and leaving their communities in search of food.
In the long term, he says it will be important to introduce irrigation and new farming methods to make Niger's agricultural production less vulnerable to climate variability, like poor rainfall, and prevent future food shortages.