DAKAR (Reuters) - Millions in West Africa's arid Sahel belt could face famine this year unless the world acts quickly to help, the European Union's humanitarian aid arm said on Thursday.
The warning came as Niger confirmed the veracity of a leaked government forecast that half its population will face food shortages this year after a dive in grain production, but said it had enough food stocks to care for the most needy.
"You are talking about a crisis of enormous proportions," Brian O'Neill, regional director of EU aid department ECHO said of signs of food shortages in Niger and neighbours such as Burkina Faso, Chad, Mali and northern Nigeria.
"If we work fast enough, early enough, it will not be a famine. If we don't move, there is a strong risk it could be happening," he told a news briefing after a trip to the region, urging the United Nations to show "very strong leadership".
Niger confirmed on Thursday that around half its 15 million population could face either severe or moderate malnutrition this year. There is no clear picture yet of the extent of risk elsewhere, notably in populous northern Nigeria.
Malnutrition has been a constant threat to the populations of the Sahel, which runs along the southern edge of the Sahara, but some experts say global warming has made matters worse.
Lack of rain contributed to a 26 percent fall in Niger's 2009/2010 cereal harvest compared to the year before, official data showed. Grains at some local markets are already trading at nearly double their usual levels.
O'Neill said the latest estimate of funds needed to avert the crisis stood at $220 million this year for Niger alone, but acknowledged that donors could struggle to raise money after digging into reserves for the Haiti earthquake aid effort.
"All of us are suffering a bit from Haiti," said O'Neill, whose agency has spent some 75 million euros combating child malnutrition in the Sahel since 2007.
In 2005 Niger suffered severe food shortages affecting 4 million people but resisted foreign help and denied there was a famine until media coverage attracted international attention.
The uranium-producing state, which saw foreign development aid frozen last year after President Mamadou Tandja defied worldwide criticism to extend his own term in power, said on Thursday it had the situation under control.
"For the acutely vulnerable, there will be free distribution of basic foodstuffs," government spokesman Hamani Harouna said in the capital Niamey.
"There is no question of any partner exaggerating a situation, humiliating Nigeriens and wanting to come and work again with Nigeriens, saying the aim is to help you with food."