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Niger on the brink of catastrophe

Drought stricken Niger is on the edge of catastrophe, warn aid groups as the United Nations ‘massively scales up’ its food hand outs.

But the tragedy playing out in the Western African nation seems to have largely passed the rest of the world by.

Months of severe drought is threatening to leave 8 million people, or half the nation's population, hungry.

The United Nations' World Food Programme said on Tuesday that it is ‘massively scaling up‘ food hand outs to people who have lost crops and animals.

"The drought in Niger is an unfolding catastrophe for millions of people and we are struggling against time to scale up quickly enough to reach the escalating number of hungry," said the UN agency’s Josette Sheeran.

Young children are especially under threat from malnutrition. "We are stepping up special nutritional help for children under two years of age, whose brains and bodies face permanent damage from acute malnutrition," Ms Sheeran said.

The agency said it now aims to feed 7.9 million people until the end of the year, by handing out food rations that include a corn and soya supplement, a peanut paste and vitamin-fortified sugar and milk for children. But it said that it had barely half the cash needed to do that and needs an extra £151m ($229m).

At the start of the month, 10 leading aid agencies had called for a bigger global response to the hunger crisis across the Sahel desert region of west and central Africa – another two million people are threatened by the same drought in Chad and thousands others in Mali, Mauritania, parts of Burkina Faso and northern Nigeria. But Niger is at the centre of the crisis.

The World Food Programme's appeal echoes a similar plea by the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, which earlier this month said it was raising the target of the global appeal to £244m ($371). Less than a week ago it upped the original appeal size to £166m ($253m) from £125m ($191 million), because it said people there now face a growing risk of disease and death.

"People are living on the edge and donors must step up their efforts or risk an even greater tragedy,” Oxfam’s Kirsty Hughes told Reuters news service. Talking about a plan to help poor Nigerians buy food at local markets where food prices have gone through the roof, she said: “It is also vital that food aid is complemented with direct cash support to the most vulnerable hungry people."

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