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10 million face famine in West Africa

Drought and failing harvests bring new fears of a food disaster in two sub-Saharan countries

At this time of year, the Gadabeji Reserve should be a refuge for the nomadic tribes who travel across a moonscape on the edge of the Sahara to graze their cattle. But the grass is meagre after a drought killed off last year's crops. Now the cattle are too weak to stand and too skinny to sell, leaving the poor without any way to buy grain to feed their families.

The threat of famine is again stalking the Sahel, a band of semi-arid land stretching across Africa south of the Sahara. Its countries constitute a virtual list of the worst famines in recent decades: Ethiopia, Sudan, Eritrea and Somalia. The UN World Food Programme is warning that some 10 million people face hunger over the next three months before the harvest in September – if it comes.

Thomas Yanga, WFP's regional director for West Africa, said: "People have lost crops, livestock, and the ability to cope on their own, and the levels of malnutrition among women and children have already risen to very high levels."

Oxfam says that eight million people are at risk in Niger, with a further two million in Chad in jeopardy, and that the situation is "going to get extremely bad". Too often in the past, food crises get attention only when there are dead bodies and distended bellies to film. The UN, aid agencies and governments are trying to sound a loud alarm before mass deaths start to occur.

Andrew Mitchell, Britain's new Secretary of State for International Development, said yesterday: "This report is deeply concerning. Although Britain does not have a direct relationship with Niger, we do have a £15m programme working through the UN and NGOs to alleviate the worst cases of extreme hunger in the region. We are watching the situation carefully."

The UN's humanitarian chief, John Holmes, said at the end of a four-day visit to neighbouring Chad that many Chadians have gone as far as Libya to search for food. "The level of malnutrition is already beyond the danger point," he said on Thursday. "If we do not act now, or as quickly as possible, there is a chance the food crisis will become a disaster."

In Niger, some say the growing food crisis could be worse than the one that struck the country in 2005, when aid organisations treated tens of thousands of children for malnutrition. "We have lost so much we cannot count," said one 45-year-old tribesman with a family of 20 to feed. He and others on Gadabeji Reserve drive starving donkeys through the burnt orange haze of a sandstorm to gather what little water they can on the desiccated plain and struggle to draw water from private wells.

Oxfam says this is potentially the worst year in a generation. Its humanitarian director, Jane Cocking, said yesterday: "It is a very serious situation. That doesn't mean that everyone will be starving and dying in the streets, but it would mean that millions would have only, say, one meal every two days – and that of very low nutritional value."

Across Niger, the harvest has fallen by 26 per cent compared with last year, with some areas, in both the east and west of the country, having a complete failure of crops. In Chad, harvests are down 34 per cent. Mamadou Biteye, Oxfam's West Africa regional director, has said: "We are witnessing an unfolding disaster which can be averted if the world acts swiftly. Five years ago, the world ignored the warning signs from Niger, failed to act rapidly and lives were lost." Oxfam will shortly launch a special appeal.

Famine is nothing new to Niger, a former French colony nearly twice the size of Texas. The Sahel cuts across the southern half of the country, serving as the dividing line between the sands of the Sahara to the north and the lush farmlands of neighbouring Nigeria. Severe droughts have punctuated the region's history for centuries. Yet, outside of uranium mining, agriculture serves as the sole economic engine for a country where little more than a quarter of the population knows how to read. Generation after generation follows worn seasonal tracks, their belongings often fitted on to a single donkey-drawn pallet.

Typically, the herders move south at the onset of December, searching for grazing lands. But this year they found only dried lakes and diminishing wells, said Hasane Baka, a regional administrator for Aren, a Nigerian development group for cattlemen.

"People were moving in all directions," Mr Baka said. Some have crossed into Nigeria, begging for food on the streets of the northern city of Katsina. Others remain behind with their cattle, knowing the livestock would die on a long trip south that could end with Nigerian police simply turning them back. Instead, they wait for rains that might not come.

Those who remain drive their cows into Dakoro, the largest and closest city for nomadic cattlemen. At the open-air market, the ribs of some cattle are starkly visible against their hides. Others die along the road or in trucks on the way. "You can see the skin and bones of much of them," said Ibrahim Tarbanassa, a 68-year-old trader. A single cow once sold for the equivalent of $200 (£140). Today some go for as little as $120 – if they sell at all. Food prices remain high after speculators cornered the already poor harvest last year.

Even in better times, roughly half of Niger's children suffered stunted growth. Now mothers walk their children up to 20 miles to reach one of two aid stations operated by Médecins Sans Frontières, according to Barbara Maccagno, the agency's medical coordinator in Niger. She said the number of children that the two stations now see has doubled in recent weeks to about 1,000 children a week.

Ms Maccagno said her agency could offer children meals of vitamin-enriched powdered milks and other foods to help bring their weight up, but many children need up to five weeks to gain a stable weight. During that time, the mother must stay with the child, which is impossible for those who left others behind, she said.

Other agencies, such as Oxfam, hand out cereals and grains directly to nomadic families living in the bush, but money for such aid is short because of the global economic downturn. The WFP said it has a $96m shortfall for a programme it planned for 1.5 million people in the worst-hit areas of Niger.

Niger's government, now being run by a military council after a February coup ousted President Mamadou Tandja, has said it will provide more than 21,000 tons of food. In 2005, Tandja played down a similar food crisis, dismissing it as "false propaganda" used by the UN, aid agencies and opposition parties for political and economic gain. Each drought and crisis ends up gaining its own name. In 2005, traders and nomads began to refer to the crisis as the Tandja famine. There's no name yet for the drought now facing the country. Many can only wait in a nation that faces cyclical hunger without an end in sight.

"Every time, it's the same situation," Ms Maccagno said.

Additional reporting by David Randall