Rome (AFP) - Two million people are teetering on the brink of famine in northeastern Nigeria but efforts to reach some are being thwarted by Boko Haram jihadists, the UN's food agency said Thursday.
More than 20 million people across Nigeria, South Sudan, Somalia and Yemen, are in areas hit by drought and are experiencing famine or are at high risk of famine in "the biggest crisis we have seen in the past 50 years", said Denise Brown, emergency coordinator for the UN's World Food Programme.
"While they are all in difficulty, northeastern Nigeria is one that has got under our skin at WFP," she added.
Around 1.8 million people in the area are classified "as being on the edge of the (famine) cliff", she said, and WFP is managing to provide support of some sort to 1.2 million of them -- though it desperately needs more funds.
"But there are several hundred thousand people who are up in three areas in Nigeria on the borders with Niger and Chad that we just can't get to because of the active conflict," she said, putting the figure at around 600,000 people.
Boko Haram launched an uprising in northeastern Nigeria in 2009 and began eyeing border areas in neighbouring Chad, Niger and Cameroon. The conflict in the area of Lake Chad has left 20,000 people dead since then.
- Funding gap hits children -
"We've seen hundreds of thousands of people displaced from border areas in Niger, Chad and Cameroon, and millions from Nigeria. The epicentre may be northeastern Nigeria but it's become a very big regional challenge," Brown said.
The World Food Programme said it needed $230 million (207 million euros) between now and October to stave off a famine in Nigeria.
Brown admitted the Rome-based food agency had not been prepared for a crisis on this scale there.
"It's a middle-income country, it's the richest country in Africa. We didn't think we'd have to apply our emergency capabilities here".
"The first time we went up there was a year ago. We were not prepared for the level of human suffering that we saw," she said.
It was local communities, "some of the poorest people on the planet", that worked as "first responders" when the crisis hit.
The agency's famine-prevention programme targets as standard all children from six to 23 months, making sure they are screened with the help of UNICEF and given special food.
But in Nigeria it was not just babies and toddlers at risk.
"When we saw the level of malnutrition in older children, we expanded that to all children under five-years old, but because of the lack of resources we've had to scale it back again," she said.
The cut to food aid also comes as the country hits the "lean season", a period of the year when families naturally have less to eat.