The critical conditions in Niger, where malnutrition levels among children are rising at a frightening rate, are echoed to varying degrees across the region.
Regardless of this year's drought and locust invasions, chronic poverty is widespread in West Africa, the scene of some bitter conflicts where many countries are at the very bottom of the Human Development Index (see box).
WFP urgently needs funds if it is to prevent millions of people across the region from going hungry in the months to come.
The problems affecting the region can be broken down into three categories:
Niger, Mali and Mauritania are suffering from the effects of natural disasters, with crops and grazing land devastated by drought and the worst locust invasion in 15 years.
Chad, Côte d'Ivoire and Togo are struggling to cope with civil conflicts - in the case of Chad, that of neighbouring Sudan; hundreds of thousands of refugees have streamed across the border from Darfur.
Coastal West Africa - Liberia, Guinea, Sierra Leone and Guinea Bissau - is the scene of forgotten emergencies: wars that have ended but left behind a trail of destruction and broken infrastructure.
WFP has tripled the number of people being fed through its Niger emergency operation to over a million, as a severe "hunger season" takes hold in one of the world's poorest countries.
With the onset of the lean season, conditions have been deteriorating rapidly. Extreme food insecurity is now widespread in affected areas.
This deterioration is apparent in high malnutrition indicators, worsening terms of trade and poor livestock conditions.
RAINS AND LOCUSTS
The situation is particularly critical this year following a poor rainy season and the worst locust invasion in 15 years, which has devastated crops and grazing land.
Most immediately at risk are young children, with feeding centres run by Medecins sans Frontieres reporting admission rates nearly three times those during the same period last year.
FREE FOOD TO MOTHERS
With several non-governmental organisations (NGOs) now arriving in Niger to start up specialised nutritional programmes, WFP will target free food to mothers accompanying malnourished children to these centres.
Other vulnerable households will also receive free food supplies through targeted general food distributions, already established by the government of Niger and NGOs.
HIGH MALNUTRITION RATES
Even in a good year, malnutrition rates among young children in Niger are extremely high. Some 82 percent of the population rely on subsistence farming and cattle rearing, while only 15 percent of the land is suitable for arable farming. There is little irrigation, leaving most farmers at the mercy of the rains.
WFP's initial response has been severely hampered by late funding and difficulties buying food within the region. Supplies are now being sourced at ports in West Africa and on other international markets.
The situation in Mali is similar. A lethal combination of locusts and drought has resulted in a 42 percent decrease in agricultural production compared to last year, creating pockets of severe need.
Some 2.2 million people - 20 percent of the population - are likely to suffer from food insecurity if WFP's operations are ended before the end of the lean season due to a lack of funds.
WFP aims to support some 450,000 vulnerable people in Mali who have been affected by last year's drought and locust invasion.
However, because of a critical funding shortfall, the agency has only been able to reach 86,500 of the people who are in need of food aid, in the most affected areas (Kayes, Koulikoro, Timbuctu, Mopti, Kidal and Gao).
These people have been given food in return for work on projects designed to help farmers rehabilitate their land and improve future productivity.
Worrying levels of malnutrition among livestock farmers and their families have been reported by NGOs, particularly in a belt running 80-150 kilometres north of Timbuctu, east towards Gao.
Here, 40 percent of children under five were found to be suffering from wasting.
A nutritional survey is planned to ascertain whether extra help is needed, such as emergency interventions to assist young children.
Many livestock farmers have lost the animals which they would have sold to buy food as a result of the drought.
In other cases, the livestock are in too poor a condition to trade for food at markets where prices have already increased alarmingly.
IMMEDIATE ACTION NEEDED
The situation in Mali is not yet catastrophic, but unless action is taken immediately to ensure food is available to the people affected, it has the potential to develop into a problem beyond the means of the government and its parners.
A timely intervention supported by sufficient funding from the international community could save lives.
Strong measures to accompany the ongoing relief efforts to make food available to the most affected people in Mali need to be continued and reinforced if a more generalised and critical food security problem toward the end of the year is to be avoided.
In Mauritania, locusts and drought have obliterated agricultural production - the cornerstone of families' survival.
In the Sahel region's worst invasion in 15 years, locusts infested 100 percent of Mauritania's agricultural production zone.
The south - which has been hardest hit - is home to about a quarter of the population; families living in the area have virtually no access to non-agricultural income.
A WFP vulnerability study shows that 60 percent of households in the agro-pastoral zone will not have enough to eat in the coming year, and the lean season during 2005 is expected to be harsher than usual.
Locusts wiped out not only cereals in Mauritania but also pulses and other vegetables. Crop assessments indicate a food deficit of 187,000 metric tons for the country's 2.9 million people.
Insufficient rainfall also hampered production. In addition, the locusts and drought have damaged the rangelands vital to cattle which are essential to people's livelihoods.
Since April approximately 14,000 metric tonnes of commodities worth over US$7 million have been distributed by WFP in Mauritania.
Approximately 400,000 beneficiaries have been reached in the regions of Brakna, Gorgol, Tagant, Assaba and Hodh El Gharbi.
WFP will use food aid in part to support the construction and rehabilitation of much-needed dykes and reservoirs in this desert country, as well as to provide community food stocks for the lean season.
WFP aims to assist families facing food insecurity due to successive years of drought by supporting asset-creation projects that will help them cope better with events disrupting their food supply.
In Chad, WFP is currently providing general food rations to approximately 197,500 Sudanese refugees who have fled into the country from the confict in neighbouring Darfur.
Assessment missions towards the end of 2004 found that the health and nutritional condition of the refugees had largely improved since a survey carried out in June.
However, the missions also concluded that in many cases the local communities were facing severe difficulties in providing for themselves after a poor agricultural season and had become 'as vulnerable as the refugees'.
FOOD FOR WORK
Consequently, WFP has begun a number of Food-for-Work and school feeding activities in the worst-affected zones and plans to increase blanket supplementary feeding assistance to the most vulnerable groups, such as young children, pregnant women, nursing mothers and the elderly.
The agency is assisting over 150,000 Chadian nationals as well as providing for the possibility that an additional 150,000 people could cross the border from Darfur if the conflict continues.
Despite the overall improvement in the health and nutrition of the refugees, their needs remain acute because they have no food stocks and few of them possess livestock in any significant numbers.
With no alternative survival strategies they are totally dependent on outside assistance.
Additional funds are required to keep the WFP-operated air service functioning between N'Djamena and the humanitarian base at Abeche and on to airstrips near the camps themselves.
Distances are enormous, with refugees settled in 11 camps strung out along a 700-kilometre strip in eastern Chad.
In Togo, the sudden death of President Gnassingbe Eyadema in February this year and the installation of his son as his successor gave rise to a lot of confusion and uncertainty in both Togo and surrounding countries.
The aftershocks of the recent political turmoil and violence continue to be felt; at least 100 people are known to have died in clashes surrounding elections in April and many people who were forced from their homes remain too frightened to return.
WFP has appealed for aid to enable it to feed 21,000 refugees in Benin and 17,000 in Ghana, as well as 10,000 people who fled seeking sanctuary within Toto itself.
Food aid is also required for another 18,500 people who are members of local communities which are hosting the displaced from Togo, and therefore have less access to adequate food supplies themselves.
Nearly 9,000 of those who have left their homes are housed in two refugee camps run by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees in Benin.
The rest have been taken in by local communities in the three countries who have assumed a significant additional burden.
In order to avoid long-term dependency on food aid, WFP intends to phase out free food distributions outside the refugee camps after two months and replace them with assistance designed to target the most vulnerable and encourage self-reliance.
These will include projects in which people receive food in return for work on schemes designed to preserve or create roads, schools and health centres, and free school meals to encourage children to continue their education.
In war-torn Côte d'Ivoire the peace process has been erratic, with peaceful periods alternating with violent confrontations.
The warring factions have now begun a long-delayed disarmament programme, which is designed to pave the way for national reunification and presidential elections in October.
WFP still needs funds for its operations in the country, where a break in aid would be particularly serious considering the unstable political situation and the possibility of population displacements within the country and the sub-region.
WFP's food aid acts as a 'pull factor' in Côte d'Ivoire by easing the resettlement of internally displaced people (IDPs) and returnees, and contributing to the rebuilding of the basic social infrastructure.
COASTAL WEST AFRICA
Liberia, Guinea, Sierra Leone and Guinea Bissau are struggling to overcome the devastating effects of war, which has ravaged social and economic infrastructures as well as agricultural production.
In Liberia, over 22,500 refugees have been repatriated and over 186,500 IDPs have resettled in their areas of origin since repatriation and resettlement began in October 2004.
But the peace process remains fragile. Continuous support is needed to assist in the consolidation of the gains realised thus far and create an enabling environment for the resettlement of returning refugees and IDPs, and the reintegration of ex-combatants into their areas of origins.
WFP's operations have contributed a great deal to the stabilisation process in Liberia, with over 80,000 ex-combatants demobilised.
However, funds shortages have meant general rations for refugees, IDPs and returnees living in camps have had to be reduced by 30 percent, and planned expansions of projects such as Food-for-Work have been limited.
In Guinea, WFP aims to support income-generating projects to help refugees and former combatants as well as local populations where they settle.
However, funds shortages have meant that general rations for refugees living in camps have been reduced by 20 percent, while activities such as Food-for-Work planned to start in January 2005 are still on hold.
Sierra Leone is making momentous strides towards stability and reconstruction nearly three years after the first post-war presidential elections.
Over half a million former refugees and displaced people have resettled in their home communities, national rice production is at 80 percent of pre-war levels and thousands of children who once carried guns and machetes now carry schoolbooks.
However, general rations for refugees living in camps had to be reduced by WFP in May, and other activities such as Food-for-Work projects have been suspended since January.
Guinea Bissau is still dealing with the effects of a civil conflict which broke out in June 1998 and lasted 11 months, causing the collapse of administrative structures and the disintegration of the social fabric.
Poverty, unemployment and social and economic problems aggravated by the crisis are causing nutritional problems among the most vulnerable population.
WFP's main goals are to support the reconciliation process and reconstruction efforts of the government in assisting the most vulnerable groups of the population, in addressing the needs for agricultural rehabilitation, and the reintegration of demobilized soldiers.