The U.N. World Food Program has extended food aid to eight million people in Niger, but aid workers say the program still needs funding and assistance may come too late for some families hit by severe food shortages.
International aid workers say a deepening food crisis is threatening 10 million people across the eastern Sahel, including seven million people in Niger.
The U.N. World Food Program announced last week that it is ramping up food aid to reach eight million people in Niger in the next six months at a cost of more than $200 million.
International aid agency, Oxfam, supports the scale-up and has called for "urgent action" from the international community.
Oxfam's Niger representative, Etienne Du Vachat, says the World Food Program's increase is certainly welcomed, but it is late in coming and still needs to be financed. In Niger, he says the WFP still needs $145 million in funding.
Oxfam has been working with at-risk populations in Niger since February.
Du Vachat says the country is now entering what is traditionally its lean season, the most difficult time of any year just before the harvest.
Du Vachat says this year the lean season began particularly early in February or March for many families, and the harvest is still one or two months away. He says the price of grain is at its peak, and many families do not have any remaining reserves or enough money to buy grain at the high market prices. He says grass has not grown back in many areas, so animals continue to die.
Du Vachat says the World Food Program scale-up in Niger is ambitious but "pockets of vulnerability" remain.
Du Vachat says families with children between six months and two years of age are prioritized in the WFP food distribution. Those families receive special food for children and additional food for the entire family to ensure that the children's rations are not eaten by other members of the family. Du Vachat says families without children under two years of age remain vulnerable.
Niger is one of the poorest countries in the world, and hunger rates were already high there, particularly among the country's children.
During harvest time, Du Vachat said parents are too busy in the fields to bring their children to nutrition centers. With the current food crisis, he said Oxfam worries that health centers could be overwhelmed with malnourished children at the end of August when harvesting is done.
The current food crisis is a result of irregular rainfall and poor harvests in 2009.
Du Vachat says the first signs of alarm showed up in November 2009 and the crisis began to hit its peak in March for many households. He says the international community has been slow in responding and now the harvests are almost here. All aid that arrives after the harvest will still be needed, but he says it may be too late for some families.
Though Niger has been the hardest hit by food shortages, populations in Chad, Mali, Burkina Faso and Cameroon are also at risk.
Du Vachat said emergency humanitarian aid is imperative, but as the region emerges from this crisis, the international community must focus on finding long-term solutions to recurring food shortages in the Sahel.