The Sahel region of West Africa is recovering from its third major food crisis in seven years, which affected 18.7 million people in 2012.
Drought, poor harvests, high food prices and a drop in remittances from relatives forced to flee conflicts in Libya and Ivory Coast put millions at risk, aid agency Oxfam said.
Nine countries were hit, particularly Niger, Mali, Burkina Faso and Mauritania. Parts of Chad, Senegal, Gambia, Cameroon and Nigeria were also affected.
In Niger, many families had not yet fully recovered from the previous drought in 2010 and had even less to fall back on in 2012 than they did then, the World Food Programme (WFP) said.
Whereas droughts in 2005 and 2010 were felt most in Niger and parts of Chad, the food crisis in 2012 affected the entire region. Food prices in the region were much higher than they had been in 2010, WFP said.
Conflict in Mali displaced tens of thousands of people and made it difficult for aid agencies to reach the most vulnerable in the north of the country. Most agencies withdrew their international staff from the area. Many of those displaced fled to areas with limited food and water supplies.
Apart from Senegal and Burkina Faso, all affected governments were quick to declare an emergency, devise plans and call in international aid, according to the U.N. special rapporteur on the right to food, Olivier De Schutter.
But governments in the region need to invest more in local agriculture and acknowledge that trade and aid cannot provide all the answers, especially when international grain prices are so high, De Schutter said.
The number needing aid in 2013 is 10.3 million, according to U.N. figures. The number of children in need of urgent aid has risen from 1 million to 1.4 million.
Although the situation has improved following better rains and harvests in the last few months, it will take farmers some time to recover the assets they lost in the crisis, and many did not have the resources to plant crops in 2012.
The rebellion in northern Mali, and the regional military response to it, will have profound effects in 2013 on Mali and its neighbours, the United Nations said. Many people are likely to flee their homes in 2013 and food production will be affected in conflict-hit areas where farmers are unable to work in their fields, Plan International said in January 2013.
For more see:
W. African food crisis 2010 - Thomson Reuters Foundation
W. African food crisis 2005 - Thomson Reuters Foundation