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Aid Group: Severe Food Shortage Threatens Millions in West Africa

Oxfam says 10 million people across the Sahel region in West Africa, particularly in Niger and Chad, are facing severe food shortages.

Oxfam is urging developed countries to take rapid action in the face of what it called an "unfolding disaster" in the Sahel, namely severe food shortages in coming months caused by irregular rains in 2009.

The international aid agency warned that eight million people are at risk in Niger and two million in Chad. Oxfam said the looming food shortage also threatens a substantial number of people in Mali, as well as those in parts of Burkina Faso and Nigeria.

Africa's Sahel
Africa's Sahel

Oxfam's humanitarian coordinator for West Africa, Phillipe Conraud, recently visited some of the most at-risk regions in Niger, Chad and Mali.

Conraud says the most affected have been the farmers and herders in rural areas, who are running out of places to graze their animals. He says grains are a staple of peoples' diets, but poor harvests this past year in countries like Niger have led to a grain shortage and subsequent rising prices. He says most of the people threatened by the potential food crisis are already extremely poor and will not be able to afford enough food in coming months.

Oxfam said harvests in Chad have fallen by 34 percent compared to last year and those in Niger have fallen by 26 percent. Oxfam said that in some regions of Niger, there were no harvests at all.

Rains are not expected again until June, and Oxfam says food prices will continue to climb until the next harvest in September without international assistance.

In Niger, Oxfam is urging donors to respond to the government's request for international assistance and head off a repeat of a devastating 2005 food crisis in Niger. Oxfam says delays in responding to that crisis needlessly cost lives.

Oxfam says Niger has requested $123 million in food aid. This request represents a change in the impoverished West African country.

Niger's former president, Mamadou Tandja, refused to address risks of food crisis during his more than 10 years in office. Tandja was ousted by a military coup last month.

Oxfam and its national and local partners have already begun emergency relief work in the most vulnerable regions in Niger and Chad.

Oxfam's Conraud says in the months ahead they will be helping rural inhabitants feed their animals and keep their livestock alive until the next rains. He says they are also working on ways to get food to the people who already can not afford to feed their families.

Conraud said they would be working with urban residents who will also have trouble finding affordable food in the coming weeks and months.