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DAKAR (Reuters) - In a slow-motion disaster predicted months ago by aid agencies, Africa's Sahel region is lurching towards a food crisis which the world has only weeks left to avert.
Yet even if more aid is pledged right now, the obstacles in getting succour to the most vulnerable and remote communities on the planet mean hundreds of thousands of children in Niger and Chad are already facing life-threatening hunger.
"The problem is that we are already too late. If you get the funds today, you don't get the food in country for two to three months," said Malik Allaouna, regional emergency manager for Save the Children in West and Central Africa.
This is the start of the "lean season", the annual battle to survive from the end of one year's food stocks to the start of a new harvest. For millennia it was the curse of most of humanity, but now it is largely the reserve of millions of Africans.
Last year's failed rains in the Sahel belt stretching across the south of the Sahara from Mauritania to Sudan mean the human cost this season could be as high as in 2005, when TV images of starving children shook the world out of inertia -- too late.
While a final death toll was not established, U.N. agency UNICEF estimated at the height of the 2005 crisis that hunger and malnutrition were threatening the lives of 3.6 million people in Niger alone.
From around October last year, tell-tale signs both of impending disaster and the inadequacy of the humanitarian response so far are grim reminders of events five years ago.
Shortages of staples in markets have sent prices out of reach of millions of households on less than a dollar a day. In Chad, a 100-kilo sack of corn has doubled in price to 22,000 CFA, with rice, sorghum, millet prices up across the region.
Village schools are closed in worst-hit areas as families migrate to the city in search of food. Livestock prices have plummeted as cattle-farmers sell their animals in a last-ditch effort to buy food for their families.
Yet despite the fact that the United Nations and others now estimate a total 10 million people are at risk, the response from donors -- many of whom have already dug deep into their pockets this year for the Haiti earthquake -- has been slow.
The UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) said just 57 percent of Niger's $191 million emergency appeal had been covered by mid-June. The World Food Programme is still one third short of its $65 million aid call for Chad.
"Funds are generally too short to allow early distribution of food," said Bruno Jochum, operations director of Geneva-based NGO Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF) of food supplies that in some cases will not start until next month.
UNICEF already expects to treat 859,000 under-fives in the Sahel this season for severe malnutrition, the point at which a child faces an increased risk of disease or death.
If the situation in Niger is bad, many believe it could turn out even worse in Chad, which has fewer agencies on the ground and where emergency food supplies can take up to five months to arrive via Libya and the Sahara or from Cameroon in the south.
World Food Programme (WFP) operations manager in Chad Jean-Luc Siblot said aid groups had until now focused efforts on refugee crises in the east of the country bordering Sudan's Darfur, whereas the food crisis was more pressing in the west.
"There is a growing presence on the ground now ... but nobody is rushing for the moment," he said by telephone.
The 2005 debacle prompted a "never again" mood that led to the launch of the $500 million U.N. Central Emergency Response Fund (CERF) to ensure aid was there when needed, and which on Wednesday announced an extra $14 million for Niger.
Technological advances such as the 500-calorie-a-portion "Plumpy'nut" therapeutic food have led to growing confidence that the world has the means to prevent mass starvation. WFP Executive Director Josette Sheeran told a Rome event this month that malnutrition could be eradicated within two generations.
But MSF's Jochum said for the world aid system to fully leap into action, it still needed to be confronted with "critical situations" such as the archetypal TV image of the starving child that this year may come from the Sahel.
"It is still probably the trigger for many interventions," he rued.