More than 2.4 million people need urgent food aid across the central Sahel region, encompassing Burkina Faso, Mali and Niger, where rising jihadist violence has triggered a humanitarian crisis, the UN said on Tuesday.
"If we do not act now to tackle hunger in the Sahel, a whole generation are at risk," a spokesperson for the UN's World Food Programme (WFP), Herve Verhoosel, told reporters in Geneva.
He said some 20 million people were living in conflict-affected areas across the region, nit by violent clashes involving a range of armed groups.
More than 860 000 people across the region have become internally displaced, while the three countries are also hosting 270 000 refugees.
Burkina Faso has been particularly hard-hit by the crisis due to a sharp increase in violence, Verhoosel said, pointing out that there were more attacks in the country during the first half of this year than during all of 2018.
According to an AFP tally, nearly 700 people have died in Burkina Faso since it began struggling against a jihadist insurgency that began in neighbouring Mali in 2015.
The UN estimates that nearly half a million people have fled their homes in Burkina Faso, and the WFP's country director there, David Bulman, told reporters Tuesday that number is expected to swell to 650 000 by the end of the year.
"These people are already poor ... and when they are displaced it means that they leave everything behind," he said, warning that malnutrition rates among the displaced were staggering.
There were high levels of acute malnutrition among displaced populations in Burkina Faso - up to seven percent which is far above the two-percent threshold for declaring an emergency.
"We are talking thousands" of children affected, Bulman said.
WFP said it was scaling up its assistance activities, and had provided more than 2.6 million people across the central Sahel region with food and nutritional assistance so far this year.
But it warned that the rise and spread of militant groups was seriously limiting access to provide aid.
The UN agency also cautioned that it was facing a severe funding gap, stressing that it urgently needs $150 million to keep its programmes running.