One in every five children is seriously malnourished in Niger, as the country suffers what aid officials are calling ‘the worst hunger crisis in its history.’
After a long drought, more than half the country’s population, or 7.3 million people desperately need food, says the United Nations World Food Programme.
The World Food Programme says 17 per cent of children, or one in five, are acutely malnourished. And that figure - based on national surveys in May and June - is well above the agency’s normal 15 per cent threshold for calling an emergency.
Now worsened by flooding that has made thousands homeless, the situation is worse than 2005, when tens of thousands of children were treated for malnutrition and thousands more died of hunger.
"What they are saying is that this is the worst crisis in living memory," said Malek Triki, West Africa spokesman for the World Food Programme.
In cut-off areas, some people are eating just one meal a day. "A woman I spoke to basically said, 'we’re in a constant state of fasting. If we eat lunch, we cannot eat dinner. If we eat dinner, we cannot eat lunch," Mr Triki told the Associated Press news service.
It is not yet known if people have already started to die of starvation, he said, and death tolls are not available from either Niger's government or the United Nations.
But aid workers at the food distribution points say that the high rate of malnutrition is obvious. Many of the children "look stunted," said Triki.
Famine is not uncommon in the north west African country because it borders on the edge of the Sahara desert and most of the land is not irrigated, so crops depend hugely on rainfall. And not only do villagers not have enough to eat, but their cattle have also died off. For many people animals are all they own, so they are left with nothing to sell, to buy food.
As a last resort, lots of people have started eating berries and leaves not normally thought edible.
In northern and central Nigeria, aid workers say the land is littered with the bodies of dead animals. "I spoke to one woman who had three goats. Two of them died before she could reach the market," said Mr Triki.
People who can get their cattle to market are bringing home only a fraction of the cost of what it would usually be worth because the animals are so skinny.
The charity, Helen Keller International says the global community is not doing enough to help Niger. Its director Shawn Baker told the BBC that tens of thousands of children would die unless more aid is promised.