“We are now having an acute humanitarian crisis in Niger in which children are dying as we speak,” said UN relief coordinator Jan Egeland.
He said no statistics were available on the number of deaths so far but noted that 150,000 of the 800,000 children affected were suffering from acute malnutrition and were likely to die soon if untreated.
“We could have prevented this and the world community didn’t,” Mr Egeland, the UN undersecretary general for humanitarian affairs, said.
Malnutrition has hit 3.6 million people over the past year, a third of Niger’s 11.5 million population.
Mr Egeland pointed out that it cost 80 dollars to save a starving child’s life through therapeutic feeding centres set up in drought-stricken Niger but it takes only a dollar a day to prevent a child from reaching that stage.
The latest crisis in Niger, one of the world’s poorest countries and already no stranger to malnutrition, was sparked by the drought accompanied by last year’s invasion of desert locusts which shrunk cereal production by more than 200,000 tons.
The food crisis has also affected neighbouring countries, including Mali, but Niger is the worst hit.
“It’s a race against time to get to 1.2 million beneficiaries with 23,000 metric tons of food which we are sending,” Egeland said.
He said the World Food Program and the Niger government last May appealed for 16 million dollars but got virtually nothing.
“Now we have an appeal for a total of 30 million dollars and I got in recent days positive pledges” from the European Commission, other European donors, several Arab states, some of Niger’s African neighbors and the United States, he added.