Children wait for their turn to buy water from a privately-owned water tower, amid an outbreak of the coronavirus disease …
FILE - Children wait for their turn to buy water from a privately-owned water tower, amid an outbreak of the coronavirus disease, in Taabtenga district of Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso, April 3, 2020.

GENEVA - U.N. agencies are operating on a shoestring budget in the Sahel region. The United Nations reports they will need $2.4 billion through the coming year to provide life-saving assistance to more than 13 million people, over half of them children, in Mali, Burkina Faso and Niger. 

The U.N. children's fund reports multiple crises in the Central Sahel, including a surge in armed violence. The economic fallout from COVID-19 is worsening conditions for children.   

UNICEF spokeswoman Marixie Mercado said more than a million children have been forcibly displaced from their homes. In addition, the number of children suffering life-threatening malnutrition is increasing, as are mortality rates in some regions of Burkina Faso, she said. 

FILE - A child and mother from Makoko slum carry their food parcel distributed by the Nigerian Red Cross, provided for those under coronavirus related movement restrictions, in Lagos, Nigeria, April 25, 2020.

"Across the three countries, targeted attacks had already shut down over 4,000 schools before COVID-19 closed down the rest," Mercado said. "Verified instances of grave violations against children, which include recruitment into the fighting, and rape and sexual violence have risen, especially in Mali."   

UNICEF has received less than a third of the $210 million it needs to provide life-saving therapeutic food, immunizations against deadly diseases and other critical aid for millions of children this year. 

The World Food Program reports it is running a funding shortfall of $178 million, putting its humanitarian operation at risk and jeopardizing efforts to save lives.   

WFP spokesman Tomson Phiri said the Central Sahel is facing a food and nutrition crisis, adding that in parts of northern Burkina Faso some people are on the verge of a hunger catastrophe. 

"This region is on a tipping point," he said. "We could see an irreversible slide into chaos, with the risk of a spillover of instability into border areas of neighboring countries around the Gulf of Guinea. This could precipitate further deterioration in food security in West Africa."    

U.N. officials said they fear the impoverished, conflict-ridden region of the Central Sahel could develop into one of the biggest crises in the world without support.