10m in need of food aid
Niamey - Only five years after a severe food shortage, north-central Africa is again fearing the worst before the September harvest, with 10 million people threatened in this arid region known as the Sahel.
In Niger alone, the country hardest hit, more than seven million residents - nearly half the population - are in need of food, and both Niger and neighbouring Chad have declared states of emergency.
Niger's south-central Maradi region is a testament to things again gone wrong: villages and schools lie deserted after hundreds of people fled drought and hunger, some moving to the cities while others headed south to Nigeria. Animals are dying from lack of fodder and water.
"This is the worst crisis in 30 years", worse than 1984 or 2005, Alio Mahamane, a member of Niger's farmers organisation, told AFP.
Burkina Faso, Cameroon, Chad and Mali are similarly affected, after last year's insufficient or irregular rains left poor crops and a desperate shortage of cattle feed in a region already suffering endemic malnutrition.
Appeals for aid
The situation has triggered appeals for international aid for this belt spanning the southern flank of the Sahara Desert.
While the main planting season for regional staples - millet, sorghum and notably maize - starts in June, the coming months up to harvest time will be the most difficult, as people try to cope with already sparse food supplies for themselves and their animals.
In hard-hit Niger, the situation continues to worsen. EU Commissioner Kristalina Georgieva warned last week that more than three of the country's seven million hungry suffered from "severe" food insecurity, as the EU allocated an extra €24m for the Sahel.
Georgieva, who is in charge of the bloc's humanitarian aid, said Niger's hungry include 139 000 children with acute signs of malnutrition.
Overall, the UN Children's Fund (Unicef) estimates that 300 000 children under five die in the Sahel each year directly or indirectly from malnutrition.
The EU's extra funding will go towards diagnosing and treating malnutrition along with other food and health projects, including mobile health units for pastoral communities. It brings total EU aid to the Sahel to €44m this year, up from €33m in 2009.
Regional food prices meanwhile have soared amid speculation linked to the shortage of staple goods.
After accusations of not anticipating the food crisis five years ago, UN agencies and non-governmental organisations have reacted more quickly this time around.
International aid for Niger started flowing in last month, with 21 000 tons of free cereals distributed to 1.5 million people with government assistance.
"Without this aid, I would no doubt already be buried," said a farmer in Tahoua in western Niger, as he loaded his cart with sacks of cereal distributed by aid workers.
But the World Food Programme's (WFP) deputy director for Niger, Gianluca Ferrera, warned of a shortfall of up to $40m (€33m) for Niger alone to make ends meet until September.
In Chad, where up to two million people need assistance, the United Nations is working to avert "disaster" and the WFP has launched an emergency operation for more than 700 000 people.
"We estimate our needs at 100 000 tons of cereals," said Chadian Agriculture Minister Albert Pahimi Padacke. "So far, we have received 55 000."
At Mao, capital of Chad's worst-hit western Kanem region, Mayor Mallah Adji said the situation was becoming "more and more critical" as no rain had been reported yet.
Sixty kilometres from Mao, at Nokou, people make do with whatever dates they can find near dry river beds to survive, said a member of the Action contre la faim (Action against Hunger) NGO.
Younger people also leave for oil-rich Libya hoping for a better life.
In Cameroon a health ministry official called the food situation extremely critical in the north, where some 339 000 people were being assisted by the United Nations.
And in northern Mali, more than 250 000 people are receiving emergency aid from the international community and the central government after scarce rainfall over the last two years.
The food situation has been aggravated by a pastoral crisis that has compelled increased nomads' migration southward and increased conflicts between them and farmers, a statement by the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) said in May before a special meeting on the food crisis.
Local representatives meanwhile cite global warming as a cause for the encroaching desert.
But in neighbouring Burkina Faso where authorities have started selling cereals at lower prices the NGO Afrique Verte's (Green Africa) Philippe Ki said the crisis was "contained" even though "pockets of drought" still existed.