Mbelogne — Aminata Diallo covers her nose as a dusty wind carries the smell of a nearby cow's carcass, in the hamlet of Mbelogne, in northeast Senegal's Matam region.
"That (dead cow) is due to the lack of water because of drought," said Diallo, 25. "It is a painful sight because we have no food... we are losing animals that we could eat and which are also the source of livelihoods for our families."
For a group of children in the village, meanwhile, the carcass has become a toy.
Erratic rainfall last year devastated crops and left little or no pasture for livestock in Senegal.
About 810,000 people in the country are facing hunger, and the national cereal production is down by 36 percent compared to 2010, according to a study by the Senegalese government and the U.N. World Food Programme (WFP).
The situation is part of the wider crisis in the Sahel region - a semi-arid belt of land south of the Sahara desert - where the United Nations estimates that more than 15 million people are facing food insecurity because of a combination of drought, failed crops, insect infestations, high food prices and conflict.
In Mali, many are blighted by conflict, displacement and hunger.
Matam, one of the regions hard hit by drought and crop failure, also has some of the highest malnutrition rates in Senegal.
Many families are running out of food stocks, forcing them to reduce the quantity of food they prepare, the number of times they eat and, for some, the quantity of water they consume, aid agencies say.
"We need help," Diallo said. "We have to manage the little food we have to feed our children but then there is the thirst to deal with," she added, as she looked at her 18-month-old daughter in her hands in the searing heat.
RECENT CALL FOR INTERNATIONAL HELP
Aid groups say food assistance could take a while to reach all of those who desperately need it.
Senegal, when compared to other governments in the Sahel region, was late to declare it was facing a food crisis. The country only called for international assistance after Macky Sall became president in April, while others like Niger had raised the alarm by October last year.
"The former (Abdoulaye Wade) regime was silent about the situation in order not to appear as having failed in its agricultural policies but surprisingly even the opposition wasn't speaking that much about it either," said a U.N. official.
Aid agencies have to purchase food, particularly rice, which is the staple, from local importers at extremely high costs in order to hasten the response to the population's needs.
"It would be cheaper to purchase rice from Pakistan but that would take four months to get here and people would be in a terrible situation if we have to wait that long," the official told AlertNet.
WFP says it needs to mobilise $53 million to tackle the food crisis declared in Senegal and to protect the food security and the livelihoods of the most vulnerable people.
The agency plans to provide assistance to 739,000 people in rural areas and 67,000 in urban areas through targeted distributions of food and cash vouchers, through cereal banks and food-for-assets activities, which help build the resilience of vulnerable households through supporting agricultural projects.
The 450 inhabitants of Mbelogne hope such aid will reach them soon and that help will also come to save their cattle.
"I am a herdsman with 20 cows that are suffering without water and pasture and my people are suffering without food," said Ely Hamady, the village chief of Mbelogne.
"We really need help."
(Editing by Rebekah Curtis)