By Tom Miles
GENEVA (Reuters) - Tens of thousands of people are dying of hunger in the area of west Africa where Boko Haram militants are active, the U.N. humanitarian coordinator for the region, told a news conference on Friday.
About 65,000 people are in a "catastrophe" or "phase 5" situation, according to a food security assessment by the IPC, the recognized classification system on declaring famines.
Phase 5 applies when, even with humanitarian assistance, "starvation, death and destitution" are evident.
“The tragedy of using the F word is that when you apply it it’s too late," said Toby Lanzer, who has also worked in South Sudan, Darfur and Chechnya.
Boko Haram militants have killed about 15,000 people and displaced more than 2 million in a seven-year insurgency and they still launch deadly attacks despite having been pushed out of the vast swathes of territory they controlled in 2014.
"This is the first time I’ve come across people talking about phase 5. The reason for that was simply a lack of access. We couldn’t get to places," Lanzer said.
"Because of the insecurity sown almost exclusively by Boko Haram, people have missed three planting seasons."
Asked if it was safe to assume that tens of thousands of people were dying, Lanzer said: "It’s not what we’re assuming, it’s what the IPC states. And I back that number.
"I can tell you from my first trip outside (the regional capital) Maiduguri, I had never gone to places that had adults who were so depleted of energy that they could barely walk."
One aid agency reported back from the Nigerian town of Bama that its staff had counted the graves of about 430 children who had died of hunger in the past few weeks, Lanzer said.
With millions more short of food in northern Nigerian and regions of the adjoining countries, the situation could get much worse, and could turn into the "biggest crisis facing any of us anywhere", he said.
“We’re now talking about 568,000 across the Lake Chad basin who are severely malnourished, 400,000 of them are in the northeast of Nigeria. We know that over the next 12 months, 75,000, maybe as many as 80,000, children will die in the northeast of Nigeria, unless we can reach them with specialized therapeutic food,” Lanzer said.
Across the Lake Chad region, more than 6 million people are described as "severely food insecure", including 4.5 million in Nigeria, he said.
(Editing by Louise Ireland)