A protracted drought in the Sahel region of Africa is causing a food crisis that could leave up to 17 million people, and 1 million children, hungry this summer. In response, the U.S. Agency for International Development will provide $81 million in additional humanitarian assistance for the region, the agency announced Thursday.

A child, who suffers from severe malnutrition, lies on a hospital bed, on March 19, 2012 in Diapaga, eastern Burkina Faso. Millions are threatened by famine this year in Sahel, according to the NGO Action Against Hunger. (RAPHAEL DE BENGY/AFP/GETTY IMAGES)

The additional funding will provide $56 million to the World Food Programme. The remainder of the amount will go to non-governmental groups to provide sustainable food programs, USAID said.

In December, software that USAID uses to predict the likelihood of famine warned of possible severe food shortages across the region, which skirts the Sahara Desert from Senegal to Chad.

Burkina Faso, Chad, Gambia, Mali, Mauritania, Niger, Senegal and, most recently, Cameroon, have since declared food emergencies.

Those countries are experiencing declining cereal production and sometimes brutal disputes over livestock herds, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization.

The Sahel region, is prone to chronic food shortages, Lindborg said.

“Even in a good year there are unacceptable levels of malnutrition. When you have a drought and rising food prices, it tips everything over,” Lindborg said.

Sahel diets are often unvaried and harvest practices poor. The Washington Post extensively covered the global food crisis of 2008, when Mauritania, Burkina Faso, Niger and Mali faced profound food shortages because of scant harvests, increased biofuel use, which elevated crop demand and prices, and higher energy prices.

A rebel movement in Mali has exacerbated the problem. Rebels associated with former Libyan strong man Moammar Gasddafi, caused conflict in northern Mali late in 2011. That eventually led an Army colonel to oust the West African nation’s democratically elected president in March, a month ahead of elections. Last week, two Islamist groups, one of which is associated with al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, declared an Islamic state in northern Mali, which many observers fear may transform the country into a safe haven for terrorists.

The upheavel in the north of the country has forced hundreds of thousands of refugees to flea to neighboring Mauritania and Niger, adding more pressure to countries already short of food. Half of Niger’s population face food shortages, and an influx of 45,000 Malian refugees is exacerbating the situation.