Food crisis threatens millions in West Africa: aid official

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Millions in Niger and across West Africa face food shortages after erratic rains hit farming in countries in the Sahel region south of the Sahara desert, the European Commission's aid group said Thursday.

"We are already into what looks like a period of extreme vulnerability and extreme difficulty for the most disadvantaged of the population," said Brian O'Neill, regional sector head of European Commission Humanitarian Aid (ECHO).

The crisis is centred in Niger, where there will be a deficit of one million tons of cereal, with 2.7 million people likely to experience a severe food crisis, he added. Another five million are at "moderate risk" in Niger.

"The erratic rains in the 2009/2010 agricultural season have resulted in an enormous deficit in food production in these countries," he said of nations such as Niger, Chad, northern Burkina Faso and northern Nigeria.

He said strong leadership would be required from the United Nations and the rest of the international community to mobilise aid.

"If we work fast enough, early enough, it won't be a famine. If we don't there is a strong risk."

Humanitarian aid in these countries has a strong presence after a devastating food crisis in Niger in 2005, with organisations working with governments to reduce malnutrition among children.

O'Neill cited UNICEF figures that of the 600,000 children who died every year in the Sahel belt across Africa where infant mortality is among the highest in the world, 300,000 died of malnutrition.

"That is a tsunami-level death toll, and it is a hidden toll. No-one pays attention to it."

O'Neill said Niger's government estimates it will require 165 million euros (231 million dollars) this year in food aid.

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