Lagos (AFP) – Urgent funding is needed to keep thousands of people alive in Boko Haram-hit northeast Nigeria, the UN said Monday, stressing that the situation borders on famine and compares to crises in Darfur and South Sudan. Aid agencies have been warning increasingly of food shortages in hard-to-reach areas of Borno state, while one NGO said last week some inaccessible parts could be suffering from famine.

Toby Lanzer, the UN’s regional humanitarian coordinator for the Sahel, including the Lake Chad basin, said progress had been made in recent years, as the Islamists lost control of territory. But he said he was “horrified” by the condition of people on a recent visit to the town of Bama, adding that the situation in Dikwa and Monguno towns was “equally as worrying”.

“I have worked in many, many places — Central African Republic, Darfur, South Sudan — and the condition of people in very rural parts of Borno state is as bad as I have ever seen,” he said. “It is an acute emergency,” he told AFP by telephone from Cameroon. Lanzer said $220 million (200 million euros) was needed for the next 10 weeks “for the purposes of keeping people alive”.

Nigeria, whose revenues have been hit by sustained low global oil prices, does not have the resources to cope and cannot do much more, he added. – Starving to death – International NGOs have faced difficulties accessing places such as Bama, which is some 70 kilometres (45 miles) from the Borno state capital of Maiduguri, because of roads still prone to ambush and attack. The medical charity Doctors Without Borders (MSF) said last month at least 188 people had died mainly from diarrhoea and malnutrition at a camp in the town since June 22.

AFP was told in early June at least 10 people were starving to death every day at a camp in Banki, 60 kilometres from Bama, and that 376 people had died in three months. Meanwhile, the UN children’s fund UNICEF said 250,000 children under five risked severe acute malnutrition in Borno this year and if nothing was done, 50,000 could die. Lanzer said a UN team had managed to go to Banki from Cameroon three days ago but access was still a problem.

“The condition of people is awful. There are dozens of people dying daily of malnutrition… Our assessment is there are 15,000 people and five of them are dying daily as we speak,” he added. – The ‘F-word’ – Last Friday, the USAID-funded Famine Early Warning Systems Network (FEWS NET) said “a famine… could be occurring in the worst affected and less accessible pockets of the state”.

Famine is declared where at least 20 percent of an area’s population faces an extreme lack of food and at least 30 percent of children are acutely malnourished. The death rate also has to exceed 2/10,000 per day.

Lanzer said there were 4.4 million people in the wider northeast and 431,000 in Borno who are considered severely food insecure, “a step below the F-word” (famine). “In my 20 years of working in these type of places, I have never seen an F. I don’t want one to appear on my watch. We will do everything we can to avoid it.”

Funding, if secured, will go towards providing clean water, medicine, blankets and nutrition, he said, praising Nigeria for its work on the relief effort. Nigeria has released 10,000 tonnes of emergency food supplies and is helping international agencies with visas and customs clearance, he added. In part, Lanzer blamed perceptions of Nigeria — Africa’s leading economy — for foreign governments’ lack of support in providing help.

But he warned if nothing was done “thousands of people will die”, adding: “I think the international community has been quite hesitant up to now to engage on any noticeable level. “But it’s now at a stage where we really do need to step up.”