More than 31 million people across West and Central Africa may not have enough to eat in the coming months as hunger rises due to an "explosive mix" of skyrocketing food prices, conflict and fallout from the COVID-19 pandemic, the World Food Programme (WFP) said on Friday.
The figure is more than 30 per cent higher than last year and represents the highest level over most of the past decade, according to a joint food security analysis assessment released under the auspices of the Permanent Interstate Committee for Drought Control in the Sahel (CILSS), a regional organization.
WFP stressed that immediate action is needed now to avert a catastrophe. The warning comes ahead of the lean season, from June to August, when food is scarce before the next harvest.
"In West Africa, conflict is already driving hunger and misery. The relentless rise in prices acts as a misery multiplier, driving millions deeper into hunger and desperation," said Chris Nikoi, WFP's Regional Director for West Africa.
"Even when food is available, families simply cannot afford it - and soaring prices are pushing a basic meal beyond the reach of millions of poor families who were already struggling to get by."
WFP said measures to curtail COVID-19 spread have contributed to the dramatic increase in food prices across the region.
Rations at risk
Some staples are up nearly 40 per cent over the five-year average. In some areas prices have jumped by more than 200 per cent, while incomes have plummeted as a result of declines in sectors such as trade, tourism and remittances.
"Until markets stabilize, food assistance may be the only source of hope for millions of families. The needs are immense, and unless we can raise the funds we need we simply won't be able to keep up," said Mr. Nikoi. "We cannot let 2021 become the year of the ration cut," he warned.
Running from violence
Meanwhile, escalating violence in some parts of West Africa is forcing people to flee their homes and abandon their fields, a source of income. Affected countries include Burkina Faso, Mali, Niger and the Central African Republic, as well as areas in northern Nigeria and in the North West and South West regions of Cameroon.
People escaping violence are especially at risk of acute food insecurity. WFP reported that across West Africa, nearly 10 million children under five are acutely malnourished, half of them in the Sahel alone, and their numbers could rise significantly.
The UN agency is seeking $770 million to fund its operations in 19 countries in West and Central Africa over the next six months. The plan is to assist nearly 18 million people, most of whom, or 68 per cent, are in crisis and emergency response situations.