DAKAR, Aug 3 (Reuters) - British aid agency Oxfam said on Wednesday that donors should act now to help more than a million people facing food shortages in Mali.
Mali's neighbour Niger grabbed headlines in the past month after drought and locusts ravaged last October's harvest, leaving an estimated 3.6 million people short of food and threatening the lives of tens of thousands of children.
Aid has begun arriving in Niger, but only after months of appeals went unheeded, prompting concerns that relief workers may face a similar last-minute rush to save lives in Mali unless funds start arriving soon.
"Now that the media spotlight is focused on Niger, the world has finally started responding to the crisis there. But this is not just about Niger," Natasha Kofoworola Quist, Oxfam's regional director for West Africa, said in a statement.
"This food crisis is affecting countries across West Africa, particularly Mali. The Mali government, international donors and the World Food Programme have started distributing food, but it is not enough. Donors have a window of opportunity. They can help to avert a major food crisis in Mali, but they must act now."
Oxfam said only 14 percent of the $7.4 million requested for Mali by the World Food Programme -- the U.N. agency that deals with emergency food aid -- had been received since the appeal was launched in December.
Oxfam said 1.1 million people in Mali were at risk, particularly in Timbuktu, Gao and Kidal in the north, echoing warnings from other aid agencies and the United Nations that more help is needed in West Africa.
Mali's government last week downplayed the extent of the food crisis in the country of 11 million, saying it had started free food distribution to some of the hardest-hit areas in October and set up other aid schemes for hungry people.
Aid workers say Mali has so far managed to avoid a crisis on the scale of Niger partly because it acted early to release emergency food stocks, although many people still need help.
Other countries on the southern edge of the Sahara facing food shortages include Mauritania, where 800,000 people are at risk -- more than 25 percent of the population.
More than 500,000 people in Burkina Faso are in immediate need of food assistance, particularly in the northern province of Oudalan which borders both Mali and Niger, Oxfam said.
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