A catastrophic humanitarian crisis is brewing in northeast Nigeria as the number of people starving and in need of food aid could raise to 5.5 million next month, the UN said on Friday.
A crisis fueled by years of Boko Haram insurgency and recent economic pressures intensify suffering leaving more than 3 million people in the northeast "in a state of moderate or severe food insecurity," said Bettina Luescher, spokeswoman for the UN's World Food Programme.
But tough economic conditions in Nigeria, caused by low oil prices and surging inflation, could see that number rise to 5.5 million "next month", Luescher told reporters in Geneva.
"We are so concerned about where this crisis is going," she said.
Nigeria's economy remains overwhelmingly reliant on oil production and the collapse in crude prices has reverberated across the country.
Nigerian Oil Minister Emmanuel Ibe Kachikwu said on Thursday that the OPEC country's crude output had fallen to 1.56 million barrels per day (bpd) as persistent militant attacks have taken out around 700,000 bpd.
The country's naira currency fell to a record low this week, approaching 350 naira against the dollar.
In northeastern Borno state, the epicentre of Boko Haram insurgency, "prices have gone up 50 to 100 percent," Luescher said.
In 2013 and 2014, when Boko Haram violence was at its peak, humanitarian workers had almost no access to the hardest-hit areas, making it difficult to assess the extent of the needs.
With the Nigerian military making gains against the extremists in recent months, access and information have improved.
Better access for aid workers under military escort to Borno and Yobe states has exposed “catastrophic levels” of suffering and a “vast regional crisis”, according to the UN refugee agency UNHCR.
The World Food Programme is ramping up its operations in the region, giving cash to civilians who can buy food at markets and food aid to those with no access to marketplaces, Luescher said.
Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF) said in late July that severely malnourished children are dying in large numbers in northeast Nigeria, the former stronghold of Boko Haram militants where food supplies are close to running out.
The aid agency warned of "pockets of what is close to a famine".
UNHCR spokesman Adrian Edwards said on Friday the situation remains dangerous and volatile, following an attack on an aid convoy last month.
"There have been frequent 'hit and run' incidents by militants, including suicide bombings, attacks on civilians, torching of homes, and thefts of livestock."
Armoured vehicles and military escorts are urgently needed to provide protection for aid workers, he said.
"We have seen adults so exhausted they are unable to move, and children with swollen faces and hollow eyes and other clear indications of acute malnutrition," Edwards said.
Boko Haram has been blamed for some 20,000 deaths and displacing more than 2.6 million people since 2009.