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Aid agencies call for a 'surge' in aid effort to help 10 million facing hunger in West Africa

Ten leading aid agencies today called for a 'surge' in the humanitarian effort to help 10 million people at risk of acute hunger across the Sahel region of West and Central Africa. The centre of the crisis is Niger, where seven million people, almost half the population do not have enough food.  A further two million people in Chad, and hundreds of thousands more in Mali, Mauritania, parts of Burkina Faso and the extreme north of Nigeria are also suffering as a result of the crisis.

The agencies - including Christian Aid, Care International, Oxfam and Save the Children - said that new malnutrition figures underlined the need to act immediately. The latest statistics from Niger show that nearly 17 per cent of children under five are now suffering from acute malnutrition, over a third higher than the number last year.

A high level political response is needed to galvanise the effective and urgent delivery of aid as well as to ensure more funding. In particular, the agencies urged the UN to appoint a special representative for the crisis to help speed up the massive aid effort across several countries, and negotiate with governments both in the crisis-affected countries and the donor states.

Despite over six months of warnings, the funding for the crisis has been paltry and slow with the UN appeal for Niger still $107m short of its target.  Some countries have increased their support, but others have been slower and less generous. The aid agencies called on rich countries to give generously and immediately fund the crisis in order to prevent a catastrophe, and to engage at highest political levels to overcome current delays in the delivery of aid.

Delays in funding have resulted in the late purchase and delivery of food to the affected areas.  In Niger, for example, World Food Programme (WFP) distributions started too late and with a reduced number of people receiving food aid. On 2 July WFP announced it will increase the number of people it is helping in Niger from two to 4.5 million in the face of the appalling new malnutrition figures.  In Chad, where the WFP needs an extra $20 million, food distributions are only planned for only two months - yet as in Niger, it will take three or more months for the next harvest to be ready.

In parts of the Sahel, people are scavenging for wild leaves and seeds, and drinking dirty water. Whole villages are starving and desperate for food, with children, nursing mothers, and the elderly particularly at risk. The last time there was a slow response to a major food crisis there in 2005, delays cost lives and it took years for people to recover.

Christian Aid programme officer Philippe Bassinga, who has been visiting some of Niger’s worst affected areas, said: ‘In the Niger countryside, hundreds of farmers and pastoralists - many of them women - are on the move in search of grain, water and whatever grazing land they can find. The children and old people have been left behind in the villages. Many are facing the same nightmare as their starving and exhausted animals; they no longer have the strength to go in search of help. The question that faces us is this: should we really leave women and children to suffer in silence? Why are we hesitating?’ 

Drought, crop failure, pest infestations, increases in food prices and abject levels of poverty have triggered severe food shortages and poor grazing land, forcing people to leave their homes, and sell or kill their starving livestock and their meagre possessions. Such desperate measures not only indicate the depth of the crisis but also undermine investment in long-term development, the aid agencies warn.

Niger, the world's least developed country, is the worst hit with 7.1 million people in need of humanitarian aid. Nearly half a million children under the age of five are acutely malnourished, with a risk of permanent damage or death if they are not treated urgently.  The cereal harvest has fallen by 30 per cent and pasture, essential for livestock herders, is 60 per cent below requirements.

In Chad, a country also affected by a long running conflict, some two million are affected by food shortages. There are reports of women resorting to eating seeds from anthills, with malnutrition rates of 27 per cent in some locations. Hundreds of thousands more are at risk in Mali, Burkina Faso and northern Nigeria.

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For more information please contact: 

Emma Pomfret, +44 (0)207 523 2427, +44 (0)7554 024539, epomfret@christian-aid.org or Ally Carnwarth: +44 (0)207 523 2424, +44 (0)783 741 8300, acarnwarth@christian-aid.org

Notes to editors:

1. The agencies involved are: ACF/Action Against Hunger, CAFOD, Care International, Christian Aid, Concern Worldwide, Oxfam, Plan, Save the Children, Tearfund, World Vision.

2. According to the latest financial tracking figures from OCHA published on 5 July, the UN appeal for Niger is now $107,200,898 short of its target of $253,189,300.   http://www.reliefweb.int/fts <http://www.reliefweb.int/fts>  

3. Global acute malnutrition rate in Niger has reached 16.7% for children aged 5 or younger, above the emergency threshold.  Source: Government of Niger/UNICEF Nutritional Survey June 2010.

4. 455,000 children under the age of five are suffering from global acute malnutrition, of which 86,800 are suffering from severe acute malnutrition. Source: Government of Niger/UNICEF Nutritional Survey June 2010.

5. Christian Aid works in some of the world's poorest communities in nearly 50 countries. We act where the need is greatest, regardless of religion, helping people build the lives they deserve.

6. Christian Aid has a vision, an end to global poverty, and we believe that vision can become a reality. Our report, Poverty Over, explains what we believe needs to be done – and can be done – to end poverty.  Details at http://www.christianaid.org.uk/Images/poverty-over-report.pdf

7. Christian Aid is a member of the ACT Alliance, a global coalition of 100 churches and church-related organisations that work together inhumanitarian assistance and development.  Further details at http://www.actalliance.org

8. Follow Christian Aid's newswire on Twitter: http://twitter.com/caid

9. For more information about the work of Christian Aid visit www.christianaid.org.uk