By Alex Whiting
ISTANBUL (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - West Africa's Lake Chad region is the world's most neglected humanitarian crisis, where poverty and desertification have been compounded by violence caused by Boko Haram, the U.N. aid chief said on Tuesday at the World Humanitarian Summit.
The gap between the suffering and the humanitarian response may be bigger than in Syria, Iraq or Yemen, a senior Red Cross official said.
Violence has forced more than 2.4 million people to flee their homes in Nigeria, Niger, Cameroon and Chad, according to the United Nations. Many families have been displaced several times. Up to 90 percent are sheltering in host communities.
Both the displaced and their hosts need emergency aid where farming has been curtailed by the violence, deepening food shortages and hunger, U.N. officials said.
More than 480,000 children could die unless they urgently receive food aid, they added.
"Lake Chad Basin ... at this stage is the most under reported, the most underfunded and the least addressed of the big crises we face," U.N. aid chief Stephen O'Brien said.
Climate change and lack of resources have already caused terrible suffering, and this has been compounded by the brutality wreaked by Boko Haram, he added.
"We have humanitarian needs now in that part of the world on a scale which is unprecedented," said O'Brien, head of the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA).
This year, the United Nations has appealed for $535 million for the region. Last year's appeal was just over 40 percent funded.
Some 3 million people face severe food insecurity in the region, the majority in northeast Nigeria. In the far north of Cameroon, the number urgently needing food aid has quadrupled in the last year, according to U.N. figures.
The World Food Programme (WFP) said it was rapidly scaling up its response to avoid a "famine-like situation".
"Across Lake Chad, where farming is possible but not practical because so much insecurity exists, the crisis disrupts trade, and the pastoral and agricultural lean season has come two months early," said WFP head Ertharin Cousin.
POVERTY IS CAUSE OF "MADNESS"
Yves Daccord, director general of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), said: "Normally I don't like to compare suffering, but if I look at all our operations ... what we see - in terms of levels of violence, of suffering and most importantly, the gap between the humanitarian response ... and what (it) should be - is possibly the biggest gap we have right now."
He was comparing ICRC's operations in Syria, Iraq, South Sudan, Somalia, Yemen and the Philippines with those in the Lake Chad Basin.
Boko Haram has killed more than 15,000 people across the region, during a seven-year campaign to carve out an Islamist caliphate.
Kashim Shettima, governor of northern Nigeria's Borno state, said poor literacy, destitution and joblessness need to be addressed to end what he called the world's deadliest insurgency.
The conflict, centered on Borno state, hit the headlines when more than 200 girls were kidnapped from a school in Chibok in 2014.
"The root cause of this madness, this insanity, is extreme poverty," he said.
"(When) we create jobs, engage the youth, this madness will certainly evaporate."
O'Brien, who traveled to the May 23-24 World Humanitarian Summit in Istanbul via Niger and Nigeria, said the region, more than any other, epitomized the many overlapping issues the summit was trying to tackle.
"We've never had a conference like this. This is about generating will, the most difficult thing to bottle up and to get going," he said.
"It's about putting people affected by crisis through no fault of their own at the heart and center of everything we do."
(Reporting by Alex Whiting, 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 http://news.trust.org)