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Drought-ridden Sahel on the cusp of crisis as Canada prepares to help

Brahim Abba, 2, has his weight checked in a scale as other mothers and children wait their turn, at a walk-in feeding center in Mao, capital of the Kanem region of Chad, Tuesday, April 17, 2012. (AP Photo/Ben Curtis)

Ben Curtis/AP

The number of malnourished children across the Sahel region of West Africa is set to hit a high of 1.5 million next week as cholera rates rise and locusts threaten crops, UNICEF said Tuesday.

"We really are seeing that we are entering a real critical time for the number of malnourished children," said Meg French, director of international advocacy and programs at UNICEF Canada.

A severe drought last year, poor harvests and rising food costs have contributed to a food crisis there.

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It was expected that the number of malnourished children would rise before the situation improved, said Ms. French.

She stressed, however, that there is still time to prevent the region from falling into a full-out famine.

Parts of Chad, Niger, Mali, Mauritania, Burkina Faso, Senegal, Gambia, Cameroon and northern Nigeria make up the arid region, which is beset with drought and cholera.

The ongoing conflict in Mali, whose north is occupied by Islamists and rebels is complicating the aid situation there.

In Niger 161,000 children under five years old had severe acute malnutrition based on a survey taken at the beginning of July.

In comparison, the drought and famine afflicted two million children in Somalia last July, according to the World Food Program.

The situation in the Sahel region, however, is not yet as bad as what was seen in East Africa last year, Ms. French said.

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"We have been able to do that already with thousands of children, and if we have the funds we can continue to provide that treatment to children … whose lives are at risk."

UNICEF's goal is to raise about $240-million throughout 2012 to support relief efforts in the Sahel region.

So far, the organization is $122-million short of its goal.

UNICEF wants to raise the remaining funds within the next five months and Ms. French welcomed an announcement by the federal government Tuesday of a dollar-to-dollar matching program for donations made to Canadian charities working in the Sahel region.

"We need to act now to prevent a major humanitarian crisis," said parliamentary secretary Lois Brown, who made the funding announcement on behalf of Minister of International Co-operation Julian Fantino.

This is the second time this year the Harper government has committed funds to help the Sahel region.

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In early 2012, $47.5-million of federal funds were dedicated to support relief efforts there.

In this new program, named the Sahel Crisis Matching Fund, the federal government will match funds that are raised by registered Canadian charities from Aug. 7 to Sept. 30.

For each eligible dollar raised, the government will set aside one dollar for the Sahel Crisis Fund, which will be administered separately by the Canadian International Development Agency.

The federal government will also make $10-million initial contribution to the matching fund.

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