"With the situation deteriorating over recent weeks, our main objective is to save lives," UN World Food Programme (WFP) Executive Director James Morris said. "Whole families are suffering because of a desperate shortage of food, which has forced them to eat just one meal a day of maize, leaves or wild fruits."
The impoverished West African country's so-called lean season (April-October), combined with serious food shortages due to last year's drought and the worst invasion of crop-devouring locusts in 15 years, has obliged WFP to revise the cost of its life-saving operation from $16 million to $57.6 million, the third adjustment in six months.
Meanwhile the UN Children's Fund (UNICEF) has increased its appeal to $14.6 million. Just a week ago, the overall UN appeal for Niger stood at $30.7 million.
"If donors had responded earlier, the cost of this operation would be hugely reduced, as the situation has deteriorated severely over recent months," Mr. Morris said.
Under the expanded operation, WFP will target 2.5 million severely hungry people in southern Niger, epicentre of the crisis, providing supplementary food to children and mothers and family rations until the end of the lean season. Rations for three months following the October harvest are provided for a further 500,000 people to serve as a safety net in case of need.
The agency is not only doubling the number of people receiving food assistance, but also giving them a wider variety of nutritious foods. By building up blanket feeding of children under five as well as providing supplementary feeding to pregnant and lactating mothers, WFP aims to bring down acute levels of malnutrition - exceeding 20 per cent in many areas.
There is only a very short window of opportunity in which to move food quickly to those who need it most before the height of the rainy season makes access difficult. The need to hasten the operation has significantly increased transport costs.
After a slow start, the international community has rallied over the past two weeks to support the world's second poorest country with some generous donations; WFP's previous request for $16 million is now fully funded. But donors have been playing catch-up with the unfolding tragedy ever since failing to heed warnings from WFP, other UN agencies and non-governmental organizations at the start of the year, when Niger faced one of its worst ever hunger crises.
Donations only started flowing in after television pictures showed heart-rending images of Niger's hunger from feeding centres in Maradi, southern Niger. "This was a desperately needed wake-up call, but the response we have received so far is encouraging. We can still save lives," Mr. Morris said.
UNICEF Deputy Executive Director Rima Salah was due to arrive in Niger today for a first-hand look at the needs of hundreds of thousands of youngsters suffering from severe and moderate under-nutrition. The agency says 3.6 million people have been made vulnerable by the current crisis, including 800,000 children under five years of age.
"For our relief efforts to be the best they can be I feel I have to see what's really happening on the ground," Ms. Salah. "I want all the people who have suffered so much, and all those who are working so hard on the relief effort to know that UNICEF considers this an urgent priority."
Ms. Salah will meet with children, their families, community leaders, non-governmental organizations and senior government officials as well as with other UN officials.