Drought has been worsed by a combination of high food prices, widespread poverty and regional conflicts [Oxfam]

West African nations are likely to face a major food crisis unless immediate action is taken, humanitarian group Oxfam has warned.

The relief agency said on Friday that a dangerous combination of drought, high food prices, reduced harvests, poverty and conflict were spreading an emerging crisis across several nations including Chad, Burkina Faso, Mali, Mauritania, Niger and northern Senegal.

The UK-based group said 13 million people could be affected by the looming crisis.

"All signs point to a drought becoming a catastrophe if nothing is done soon," said Mamadou Biteye, Oxfam's regional director for west Africa.

"A concerted aid effort is needed to stop tens of thousands dying due to international complacency."

In Chad, the situation is already so bad that some villagers are digging into ant hills to collect grain the insects have stored.

In the countries most affected, malnutrition rates are at between 10 and 15 per cent, and more than one million children are at risk of severe acute malnutrition.

Oxfam said that in northern Mali, clashes between the army and Tuareg rebels had forced tens of thousands of people to flee their homes, adding extra pressure demand for resources in surrounding countries.

The group wants to raise $37m to provide food and support to about one million people. 

'Urgent support'

"We need to act to prevent further deterioration of the food security situation and to avoid a full-scale food and nutrition crisis. "

- Jose Graziano da Silva, FAO Chief

Meanwhile, the United Nations food agency FAO on Friday appealed for an extra $69.8 million to aid 790,000 vulnerable households in the drought-hit Sahel region in West Africa. 

The region needs "urgent support to prevent a full-blown food and nutrition security crisis and to protect and restore livelihoods of communities dependent on livestock and crops," the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) said.

"Total 2011 cereal production in the Sahel was on average 25 per cent lower than in 2010, but as much as 50 per cent lower in Chad and Mauritania," it said.

It said the rise in internally displaced people in the region, including thousands fleeing conflict in northern Mali, had also aggravated the crisis.

"We need to act to prevent further deterioration of the food security situation and to avoid a full-scale food and nutrition crisis," Jose Graziano da Silva, the FAO chief, said.

"Part of the solution is to improve the access of farmers and herders to local markets, encourage the use of local products, and apply risk-reduction good practices to reinforce their resilience", he said.

Source: Agencies