With fears of famine and a humanitarian crisis looming in west Africa, the Canadian International Development Agency is giving a total of $41 million to United Nations organizations, such as the World Food Programme and UNICEF, as well as the Red Cross and Canadian NGOs working in the region.

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In this photo from 2010, nomadic Fulani girls wait to collect water from a public well in Gadabeji, Niger, as a multi-year drought kills off crops and starves livestock. Canada has pledged $41 million to address an emerging food and humanitarian crisis in west Africa. (Sunday Alamba/AP Photo)

Years of drought have devastated agricultural production, sent food prices soaring and left many stricken with not only new levels of poverty and malnutrition, but an emerging humanitarian crisis now as well.

The western span of the semi-arid belt across Africa, along the southern Sahara Desert and some greener lands to the south, was ravaged by a severe drought in 2011 that threatens to dwarf last year's famine in East Africa.

The United Nations and other major international bodies are warning of a famine that could affect 23 million people across the Sahel region, including the countries of Niger, Mali, Chad, Burkina Faso and Mauritania, unless a major global rescue effort is mounted.

Chad in particular is experiencing the worst cholera epidemic in its history.

Ethnic violence in Mali and Sudan's Darfur region further threaten already vulnerable populations.

"Clearly, the people in the Sahel region are in need of help to face their unimaginable reality," said International Cooperation Minister Bev Oda in a written statement announcing Canada's new funding.

The world's aid agencies are still reeling from last year's full-blown famine further east in the Horn of Africa that killed tens of thousands and affected almost 10 million in four countries, including Ethiopia and Somalia.

The government release said the $41 million in new assistance will be distributed through the United Nations organizations, the International Committee of the Red Cross and Canadian NGOs active in the region. 

"Canada is helping to improve access to food and to provide life-saving nutritional support through a number of activities, including the distribution of emergency food rations, supporting community-based treatment of acute malnutrition, and improving access to safe water for men, women and children facing this very complex humanitarian situation," Oda's statement said.

Government officials noted that Canada is second among the top donor countries working to prevent a full-fledged famine in West Africa. The United States has pledged $75 million, while Australia ($10.5 million), Denmark ($6.3 million) and Germany ($4 million) round out the top five.

Aid groups sound alarm

"We absolutely need to have an intervention at this point to help us avoid an emergency. We've got to sound the alarm bells globally," Evelyne Guindon, CARE Canada's head of international programs told The Canadian Press Tuesday from Chad.

Guindon visited the Chadian region that borders the Sudanese region of Darfur, which has seen an influx tens of thousands of refugees fleeing nine years of civil war.

She saw one example of glowing human courage, but it underscored a much deeper problem. Impoverished Chadians have welcomed fleeing refugees, but they are suffering from a lack of rain, poor harvests and no access to water.

"These people have been taken in by critically poor people, people who have opened their arms, helped them out. Many of them are from the same tribe. But it's the host community we're most concerned about. They don't have access to food because they're not refugees," Guindon explained.

"There's always risk of conflict when resources become scarce."

Oxfam's Louis Belanger tells a similar story from Mali, which has been plagued by a month of attacks by a rebel group in its north that has displaced tens of thousands. The violence has sent at least 15,000 fleeing to impoverished Niger.

"Imagine host communities already going through a food crisis hosting refuges from Mali," Belanger said from his base in neighbouring Senegal. "This is a pretty extraordinary circumstance."

Dave Toycen, president of World Vision Canada, said the fear was palpable in Mali among parents of hungry children, who face empty fields and waits of several months before the next planting season.

"I was talking to one father who said, I try to not to panic because I don't want to scare my children," Toycen said in an interview from Mali this week.

"It feels like they are sliding into this crisis. We are not seeing large numbers of starving, skeletal children. But the malnutrition rate is creeping upward."

with files from The Canadian Press