At least $396 million is urgently needed to prevent widespread hunger and malnutrition in northeastern Nigeria from turning into a “full-blown catastrophe,” the United Nations office in the West African nation said Thursday.
“We are ringing the alarm bell that there are people close to or dying (of hunger) right now in the northeast,” Matthias Schmale, the U.N. humanitarian coordinator for Nigeria, said in the capital, Abuja, while releasing the lean season food and nutrition crisis plan.
Security forces in northeastern Nigeria have been battling Islamic extremist rebels who launched an insurgency in 2009 to fight against Western education and to establish Islamic Shariah law in the region. At least 35,000 people have been killed and more than 2 million displaced as a result of the violence, according to data from U.N. agencies in Nigeria.
A breakaway faction of the Boko Haram extremist group, known as the Islamic State West Africa Province, has risen to prominence, dominating the fringes of the Lake Chad region where its fighters often target security force convoys and outposts.
The U.N. has said over 80% of those in need in the hard-hit region are women and children, making them more vulnerable to other forms of crimes and violence. It warned that limited funding could increase the risk of famine.
Aid groups have reported an unprecedented number of malnourished children in the conflict zone as hunger bites harder for many families, including those in hard-to-reach areas. The French medical charity Doctors Without Borders said last month that the number of weekly admissions of children is two to three times higher than previous highs over the past five years.
Schmale, the humanitarian coordinator, described speaking with children who go for days without eating enough and with mothers fighting for the lives of their malnourished infants.
“More than half a million people may face emergency levels of food insecurity with extremely high rates of acute malnutrition and cases of mortality if there is no rapid and significant scale-up of humanitarian assistance,” he said.