By Kieran Guilbert
DAKAR (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - More than 400,000 people in Boko Haram-hit northeast Nigeria will receive food aid to avert the threat of famine as the lean season approaches, the United Nations' World Food Programme (WFP) said on Tuesday.
"It is a race against time as the lean and rainy season is upon us," WFP executive director Ertharin Cousin said at the World Humanitarian Summit in Istanbul.
"We know that unless we act fast, and we act now, hunger will only deepen in the months to come."
Poor sanitation, high rates of disease and a lack of access to food, water and healthcare could lead to a "famine-like situation" if aid is not urgently provided, the WFP said.
The U.N. agency will give food or cash to 431,000 people in the northeastern states of Borno and Yobe, delivering nutritious food to 64,000 children aged under two at risk of malnutrition.
Some 2.5 million people in northeastern Nigeria are hungry, and more than 800,000 need immediate food aid in Borno and Yobe, the two states hit hardest by Boko Haram, according to the WFP.
The most vulnerable people are reliant on aid after being cut off from their farms since 2013, and it is likely that this year's food production will again be disrupted, the WFP said.
The amount of land being used to grow food in the northeast has dropped by almost 70 percent over the past year as violence has disrupted farming and driven people off their land, said the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA).
The insurgency has closed local markets and stifled cross-border trade with neighboring Cameroon, Chad and Niger, doubling staple food prices in some areas of Borno state since the start of the year, according to the WFP.
"With diminished harvests caused by the devastating effects of drought and halted crop production in most farming districts, food supplies are terribly low," Kashim Shettima, governor of Borno, said at the summit.
The conflict has displaced almost 2 million people within northeast Nigeria. Aid agencies cannot reach some areas due to insecurity, the WFP said.
A regional offensive last year drove the militant group from much of the territory it held in northern Nigeria, undermining its seven-year campaign to carve out an Islamist caliphate.
But the militants have since struck back with suicide bombings and hit and run attacks on civilians.
(Reporting By Kieran Guilbert, editing by Emma Batha.; Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's rights, trafficking, corruption and climate change. Visit news.trust.org)