The United Nations humanitarian chief warned yesterday that nearly 6 million people are struggling to get food in West Africa's Sahel region and severe malnutrition is threatening the lives of 1.6 million children.

Mark Lowcock said in a statement that these levels haven't been seen since a crisis in 2012 "and the most critical months are still ahead". He said the rapid deterioration in recent months in Burkina Faso, Chad, Mali, Mauritania, Niger and Senegal "reveals an urgent need for more donor support".

He said UN plans to respond to the crisis in the six countries are only 26 per cent funded and he urged donors for additional support. "We can still avert the worst," he said.

Lowcock said the crisis was triggered by scarce and erratic rainfall last year, "resulting in water, crop and pasture shortages and livestock losses".

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Three UN agencies warned in May that drought, conflict and high food prices would drive millions of people in the Sahel into malnutrition and further insecurity without immediate aid. The World Food Programme, the UN children's agency Unicef and the Food and Agriculture Organisation said this could be one of the worst crop seasons in several years.

Fighters affiliated with Isis (Islamic State) and al-Qaeda are active in the Sahel, and the three agencies said insecurity in the region has forced tens of thousands of people to leave their homes, led schools to close and disrupted basic social services.

Lowcock, the undersecretary-general for humanitarian affairs, said food had already run out for millions.

"Families are cutting down on meals, withdrawing children from school and going without essential health treatment to save money for food," he said. "Severe acute malnutrition rates in the six countries have increased by 50 per cent since last year," he added. "One child in six under the age of 5 now needs urgent life-saving treatment to survive."

In Burkina Faso, the number of people facing "food insecurity" has tripled since last year, he said. There has been a 120 per cent increase in the number of people in "emergency" conditions in Mali and "severe acute malnutrition rates are at their highest since 2008" in Mauritania.