The United Nations World Food Program is more than doubling the number of people it is planning to feed in Niger, as a food crisis caused by drought in the eastern Sahel continues to spread.
The World Food Program is now expecting to feed more than 1.5 million people in next month's general food distribution, along with specialized therapeutic feeding for 500,000 children under the age of six.
That is because poor rains last year have brought forward the time when people no longer have enough to eat.
"The lean season normally starts in Niger towards June and July and lasts until September or October, which is the harvest time. But this year because of the bad harvest last year, the lean season started much earlier," says Gianluca Ferrera, WFP's deputy director for Niger.
Last year's cereal harvest in Niger was 26 percent below the previous year. Primary schools in the southern Zinder region are now closing, as families abandon the area and head toward the capital in search of food.
Ferrera says internally displaced civilians are far harder to feed then those who stay at home. So relief officials are hoping farmers return to their fields once the rains begin.
"What we have observed since the beginning of the year is an earlier movement, a migration of people leaving the rural areas toward urban areas," said Ferrera. "Starting from end of May early June we should be having rains. And normally people return back to their villages to do the agricultural work in preparation for the planting season. So we do expect to see some reverse movement in the weeks to come. And we are getting prepared to assist those people in their place of residence and not in an urban setting where it would be much more complex."
WFP is trying to raise $182 million to scale up its operations in Niger. Although Ferrera says donor response has been good, it is not yet adequate.
"We still have a huge shortfall estimated at around 50 million dollars, roughly 45,000 tons of food that we still need to meet the urgent needs of the population until September," Ferrera adds.
The U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization is also stepping in to aid cattle herders in Niger and Chad. Livestock pastures are dry, so herders are selling their animals at lower prices to buy food for their families.
Eight FAO projects in Niger worth more than $12 million are aimed at helping two million people. In Chad, the organization will supply more than four-million-dollars worth of seeds, fertilizer and animal feed. The distribution of animal feed and veterinary products is also underway in Mali and Burkina Faso, with at-risk farmers and herders across the Sahel expected to need assistance at least through August.