Millions of people in West Africa are at risk of starvation following failed harvests, a deepening drought and rising food prices, charities warned today.
Oxfam and Save the Children this morning both launched separate £7 million emergency appeals to raise funds to tackle the emerging crisis in the region.
In parts of Niger and Chad, some are being reduced to eating maize meant for poultry, while some women are digging ant-hills to collect the grains and seeds the ants have stored, Oxfam said.
It added that worsening conditions in the Sahel region, a semi-arid belt across the southern Sahara have seen malnutrition rates soar as families struggle to find food.
Also affected are areas in Mali, Mauritania, parts of Burkina Faso and the north of Nigeria.
Mamadou Biteye, who heads Oxfam's work in West Africa, said: "We are witnessing an unfolding disaster which can be averted if we act quickly. The next harvests are several months away and people are already desperate. People are eating leaves and drinking dirty water.
"Donors need to act urgently before this food crisis becomes a catastrophe. Five years ago when there was a similar food crisis in Niger the donors left it too late, lives were needlessly lost and the cost of the humanitarian operation soared."
The charity is spending £3m from its reserves to begin immediate aid, distributing food and animal feed, buying weak livestock at above market prices and making the meat available. Niger is bearing the brunt of the problems, with Save the Children stating more than half of its population- 7.1 million - did not have enough food.
Up to 380,000 children under five - one in eight - are facing severe malnutrition, it added.
International Development Secretary Andrew Mitchell said: "I am deeply concerned by the situation in Niger and Chad. The current humanitarian crisis has left millions of people without enough food to eat and thousands of children at risk of malnutrition.
"Oxfam is working to deliver vital aid to those who need it most but they do not have enough funding to meet all the needs.
"Britain has provided £15 million to help deliver emergency food aid and treatment for malnourished children and I urge other donors to respond generously."Reuse content