Even in non-crisis years, the population of the Sahel - a belt of arid land that stretches from Senegal through Niger and Burkina Faso to Chad - is extremely vulnerable. Every year, fifty per cent of children under-five suffer chronic malnutrition and 300,000 children die from malnutrition-related causes.
This year, poor rains have resulted in a 25% reduction in cereal production across the region, and food prices that are in some areas 80% higher than the five-year average. More than 10 million people are struggling to meet their minimum food requirements, and altogether more than 13m people are at risk of hunger.
Levels of malnutrition in most areas are between 10% and 15%, with some areas exceeding the emergency threshold of 15%. UNICEF has estimated that a million children are at risk of severe acute malnutrition this year. Save the Children's assessments in Niger show that some communities are facing a shortage of nearly two thirds of the food and cash they need to survive this year.
What does this mean for children and families?
Throughout the region, families have already begun to adopt ‘harmful coping mechanisms' - desperate strategies adopted by families in order to survive, but that in the long term reduce resilience and food security. These include reducing the number of daily meals, selling livestock which is usually relied on for food and income, going into debt, and taking children out of school. The situation is compounded by increasing insecurity in the region related to the flow of arms from Libya and Cote d'Ivoire, the Touareg rebellion, and the activities of Al Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb.
The governments of Burkina Faso, Chad, Mali, Mauritania and Niger have already declared emergencies and called for international assistance. But the international response so far is not on the scale required to avert a crisis. The UN estimates that it will need $725m to tackle food security and nutrition in the Sahel, but so far just over half of this has been pledged - and even less actually committed. The Australian Government has already pledged $10 million.
The lean season (the time between harvests when household food stocks dwindle) is fast approaching, and the next harvest is not until October. The Food and Agricultural Organisation warned last month that there were only two or three months to act to avoid a crisis on a scale similar to that seen in the Horn of Africa last year. That window of opportunity will soon be closed.
We began working in Niger during the food crisis of 2005, when we launched an emergency response in Zinder and Maradi regions in the south.
We aim to reach 1.3 million people, including 780,000 children with humanitarian aid in Niger
We aim to reach 540,000 people (including 385,000 children), out of the total affected population of 1.67 million in Burkina Faso
We aim to reach 700,000 children and family members directly, representing 20% of the affected population (3.5 million people) declared by the Government of Mali
We have now helped over 20,000 households in Niger through cash transfers, distribution of livestock, and teaching farming techniques
In addition to ongoing programming in Niger, Save the Children is now working in Mali, Mauritania and Burkina Faso to provide millions of people with food, water and healthcare
If we act quickly we can prevent the food crisis
Koursia is 1 year old. The poor harvest and rising food prices have left her family living hand-to-mouth. They are forced to feed Koursia a daily porridge of millet flour and milk, which is not enough to keep her alive and healthy. Her father used to work in Nigeria but the recent violence means that is no longer possible, and now he is desperately searching for work in Niger.
But time is running out for thousands of other babies like Koursia. Over 13 million people across Niger and West Africa are facing a growing hunger crisis triggered by crop shortages, rising food prices and insecurity in neighbouring countries. Children are smaller and weaker, and will die first.
We know what to do. We saw the same early warning signs in East Africa last year. Save the Children saved thousands of lives across East Africa, but many more lives were lost because of the slow international response. We must learn from our mistakes. These early warning signs in Niger and across West Africa must result in an early response.
We're there, on the ground, helping to save lives. We're working in Niger, Mali, Mauritania and Burkina Faso to provide millions of people with food, water and healthcare before they get any weaker. We can help prevent the needless deaths of thousands of children but the window of opportunity to stop this crisis is closing fast.