With millions of people across Africa’s Sahel region facing the annual ‘lean season,’ already exacerbated by last year’s food crisis, the United Nations World Food Programme (WFP) today called on donors to make up a 70 per cent shortfall in funds needed to feed 3.3 million of the most vulnerable, well over half of them young children.“Every year is a crisis year for the poorest people of the Sahel,” WFP Regional Director Mustapha Darboe said of the affected countries – Mauritania, Mali, Niger and Burkina Faso. “For too long this has been widely considered to be normal and acceptable. It is not. People should not be chronically short of their daily needs in the 21st century. “Last year’s crisis in the region, especially in Niger, was a wake-up call to everyone; invisible hunger and unchecked poverty kill people in West Africa,” he added.Of the $54 million WFP has sought to help tide millions of people over the precarious months between the exhaustion of their household food stocks and the new harvest, only $16.5 million, or 30 per cent, has so far been received. Many people are already feeling the lean season’s bite despite what was generally a good harvest across the Sahel at the end of 2005. WFP aims to supply supplementary feeding at nutrition centres and community health clinics, as well as to assist other post-crisis aid programmes. The Agency is particularly concerned that its operation to feed over 400,000 people in Mauritania is drastically short of funds and facing almost immediate breaks in food supplies. Of the $18 million required there, it has to date received just $920,000. A serious break in cereal stocks is looming as early as June.Mauritania has suffered successive years of drought which, combined with the ravages of the locust invasion of 2004, have eroded livelihoods and left many in the southern agro-pastoral zone living precariously.No country in the Sahel faces a more difficult lean season than Niger, where last year’s crisis has left a deep scar, pushing thousands of the poorest further into poverty and debt. Donor response is encouraging, allowing WFP to secure supplies for feeding centres until September but remains concerned that should food prices rocket upwards, many of the poorest will again find themselves in need of urgent aid. In Mali, WFP aims to improve the overall nutritional well-being of children under 5. In Burkina Faso, it plans to feed 43,000 children and 11,000 mothers in a bid to stem the alarming rates of malnutrition in a country where, some 40 per cent of children under five are underweight, compared with a global average of 18.6 per cent for acute malnutrition.