Children in Niger Need Urgent Help

14/03/2012 12:23 GMT | Updated 14/05/2012 10:12 BST

The UK government has just announced an extra £5m for the food crisis in West Africa. The money will help a provide food, water and medical supplies for 115,000 people in the crisis-hit region. This is very welcome news. I was in Niger last week and met families who are already in crisis and taking desperate measures to survive.

People like Habeche, a 60 year old lady who told me that she has never witnessed hunger as bad as this year. She and her family have been forced to eat leaves and forage for fruit. Or Mariamma, who has a four-month old baby but only enough food to have an evening meal twice a week. Or Bassira, who has been looking after her children and elderly father since her husband left the village to find work over three months ago.

Action now will improve these families' chances of survival. Earlier this year, Save the Children reported that failure by the international community to act on early warnings of a hunger crisis in East Africa in 2011 led to thousands of needless deaths and millions of pounds in extra spending. The same will happen again unless other governments follow the UK's lead and pledge money to fund a timely response to the Sahel crisis.

If international donors do not make sure money is pledged and delivered within a month then many children who are already malnourished could be pushed over the edge. Children like Nora who I met at a clinic in Koona in southern Niger. He is 12 months old and his mother died of diarrhoea so his great-grandmother looks after him. She bought him to the clinic to be weighed: his body weight is half what it should be.

There are too many children like Noora in West Africa. Research carried out by Save the Children teams in Niger, Mali, Mauritania and Burkina Faso, shows that because of crop failures, livestock deaths and skyrocketing food prices, thousands of families will soon be unable to afford enough food and water to survive.

According to our research, the poorest families in Niger will only be able to afford two-thirds of the food they need to stay alive. In parts of Mauritania, the entire maize crop has failed, pushing up the price of other staples. Similarly, in Mali, almost the entire rice crop has failed, doubling the price of millet. And in Burkina Faso, sorghum and peanut harvests are almost half of what they should be.

And it's getting worse. The UN, amongst others, has predicted that the price of basic goods will continue to rise over the coming months, increasing the numbers affected by the crisis. We need to act now to prevent what is already a worsening crisis from snowballing into a catastrophe.

Save the Children teams on the ground are already scaling up food and health work. Last week in Niger I worked with some of our frontline community health workers in the remotest villages, to identify and refer malnourished children to clinics where trained nurses give them food supplements. They are also giving pregnant mums fortified millet. In one area alone we have trained and deployed 600 volunteer community health workers. We are also running a cutting edge cash transfer programme, which has allowed poor families who have lost their crops and income to survive the lean period.

Earlier this year Save the Children launched a £30 million appeal fund this vital work - but so far that appeal remain less than one-fifth funded. Unless we get more money soon, our ability to keep working with families like Noora's will be challenged. International donors need to do their bit too. The UK government and the European Commission have shown strong leadership and we commend them, but the UN needs to keep momentum going by convening a pledging conference to get all donors to commit their fair share.

At the clinic, Noora's weight was shockingly low, but Save the Children nurses were on hand to give him a food supplement to build up his weight and energy. He should survive, but others may not be so lucky. Their fate lies in the hands of international community. Let's come together and learn the lessons of the past. Because action now will not only save lives but be much cheaper than if we wait till the TV cameras finally take notice.

Save the Children are on the ground and responding to the emergency to find out more visit the website here