The food crisis in Niger and other parts of the Western Sahel needs to be tackled "urgently" before the beginning of the rainy season makes aid delivery impossible in remote regions, reports an international network of Catholic social justice and anti-poverty groups.
As a result of last year's droughts and the long-term effects of previous food crises, millions in Niger are at risk, says Caritas Internationalis.
"In some areas, the situation is already very bad," adds Caritas Niger volunteer Bruno Sossou, who has explored remote villages in the country. "Some people are only eating wild plants. Aid needs to arrive quickly. In 45 days, the rainy season will start and some areas will be cut off."
According to Caritas, the crisis in Niger has been underestimated. Food insecurity was a taboo subject under the former government, which was overthrown in a coup on Feb. 18.
It wasn't until international groups and the media put pressure on the government to conduct a survey on the issue that a clearer picture of the emergency's scope emerged, reports Raymond Yoro, Secretary General of Caritas Niger (CADEV Niger).
According to the national survey conducted by Niger's government last December, some 7.8 million people, or nearly 60 percent of Niger's population, are running out of food.
And according to a recently leaked government report, nearly three million people are expected to face "extreme" food shortfalls this year.
Over 800,000 children under the age of five in Burkina Faso, Mauritania, Mali, Niger, northern Nigeria and Chad, meanwhile, are classified as needing treatment for severe malnutrition.
"The political environment is crucial for aid interventions to succeed," says Yoro in a recent report by Caritas. "At least, now we are free to coordinate our efforts with other NGOs and have access to detailed geographical surveys that allows us to step in where it is most needed."
Caritas is currently preparing to launch an appeal to provide emergency food aid to the most vulnerable in Niger and has projected to deliver food aid to almost 250,000 households in 327 villages.
Tackling the emergency with food aid, according to Caritas, is a first phase. After that, the network intends to start a rehabilitation program through capacity building, encouraging income-generating activities in rural areas and a long-term improvement of food security.
According to the United Nations, around 378,000 people will likely suffer from acute malnutrition in Niger in the next 12 months unless aid agencies can ramp up their programs quickly.
The U.N. said earlier this month that it needs $133 million to fight hunger in Niger. It has so far received $57 million of its $190 million total funding request.