14/03/2012 06:02 GMT | Updated 14/05/2012 06:12 BST

The Sahel Food Crisis Needs Urgent Humanitarian Support

Retrieving grain from an anthill is not easy. Once the baked earth has been broken with a shovel or pick axe, it is beaten to dust, before being sifted to salvage the grain buried by the ants. For children in Chad, these grains may make the difference between going to bed hungry or not.

Last week I went out to Chad with Oxfam to get a better understanding of the food crisis in the Sahel region. From West Africa, across the Sahel and into Chad 13 million people face food shortages this year that will leave them struggling to get by until the next harvest in September.

Even in a 'good' year in Chad too many children don't get enough to eat, leaving them malnourished and their growth stunted. This year over 1 million children are at risk of severe acute malnutrition in the Sahel. In Chad, the number of children suffering from severe acute malnutrition, that may kill them or stunt their growth, keeps rising - from 94,000 in 2010 to 127,000 cases anticipated in 2012.

We drove 10 hours out of the capital to Mangalmé, in the centre of the country, to visit some of Oxfam's projects. As we entered the first village we met women working at the anthills. This is just one of the desperate courses of action that people use to cope with the food shortages. Others include eating the leaves on trees, but this year these have been eaten already by insects; reducing the numbers of meals a day to one, which is already the case in many households; and selling livestock - the equivalent of spending your life's savings.

These coping mechanisms normally kick in in June and July, when the 'lean' season sets in for the last couple of months before the new harvest in September. This year families have been forced to turn to them as early as February. When these options are exhausted, the only thing left to do is leave home and migrate in search of food. 3.5 million people in Chad don't have enough to eat, that's 32% of the population.

In the UK however, we do have an option. If we act now we can help prevent the worst of this crisis. The UK is already providing much needed humanitarian support through NGOs and ECHO, the European humanitarian funding mechanism. But we need to do more. What was clear from my meetings with multilaterals, NGOs and government officials last week is the significant shortfall currently facing Chad, and the Sahel region more widely, in terms of the humanitarian response. The World Food Programme has planned to deliver food but there is an anticipated shortage of funding of more than 100 million US dollars.

In Chad, we visited projects already underway. The first was a 'cash for work' irrigation scheme which not only contributes to a better harvest next year, but also gives people the opportunity to earn money, helping them overcome short-term food shortages and stimulating trade in local food markets. The second project was a vegetable garden. The produce from the garden is supplementing food intake and being sold into the markets. Both projects were run by community management groups in partnership with Oxfam and local authorities. They are designed to help with the short- term food crisis but also to increase the resilience of communities to food crises in the future. This combined humanitarian and development approach is key to ensuring that people are not trapped in a recurring poverty cycle.

Save the Children and Oxfam's report 'A Dangerous Delay' made very clear what the cost of acting too late in Chad and West Africa will be, both in terms of the immediate loss of life but also the damage to longer term resilience. The UK Government has already committed some money but it should urgently clarify the level of humanitarian investment it intends to make in the Sahel region, and back proposals for donors to urgently come together at a conference to commit to more life-saving support. Any further delay would suggest lessons have not been learnt from the past.