About 2.7 million people in the largely arid west African country of Niger face hunger because of inadequate rain for their crops, an official said Friday.
"The inquiry shows that about 20 percent of the population is in a vulnerable situation, or 2.7 million people," Hamani Harouna, an official with the government's early warning system, told public media.
To avoid a famine, the authorities plan to distribute free food to the most vulnerable and to sell cereal cheaply, Harouna said.
In mid-October last year, the government threatened to sue the Niger Association for the Defence of Human Rights (ANDH) for quoting an official report, which had not been released, that warned of a food shortage threat affecting 2.6 million people.
The government spokesman, Kassoum Moctar, then said that the figures were "false" and that "there is no disaster in the making."
He accused the ANDH and other non-governmental organisations of seeking to "tarnish the image" of Niger and to raise funds from international institutions on the pretext of tackling food shortages.
According to the ANDH, which urged the government to "anticipate the crisis the better to manage it", five of Niger's eight regions have been affected: Tahoua, Tillaberi and Dosso in the west, Zinder and Maradi in the central south.
"There are zones where the harvests are good. There are also zones where the farmers did not sow grain and nothing could grow because of the drought," the president of the Organisation of Nigerian Farmers, Djibo Bagna, warned at the time.
In 2005, some 3.2 million in Niger faced famine after a drought and after their crops were ravaged by locusts. Mass starvation was avoided with the help of the intervention of the international community.