08/07/2012 12:46 EDT | Updated 10/07/2012 05:12 EDT

West Africa food crisis matching fund launched by Ottawa

Canadians are being asked to open their wallets and donate to a fund for humanitarian aid in West Africa's Sahel region, where a food crisis is threatening lives, and the federal government will match each dollar that is given.

The federal government announced today that it has committed $10 million to kickstart the new Sahel Crisis Matching Fund. Donations given by Canadians to registered charities responding to the crisis will be matched up to Sept. 30.

The Canadian International Development Agency will distribute the funds to humanitarian organizations that are providing relief in the hardest hit areas, which include Niger, Mali, Burkina Faso, Chad, Mauritania, Senegal, Gambia and northern Cameroon.

"Canadians have shown that they are always ready to help those in need," CIDA's minister Julian Fantino said in a release. Fantino recently replaced Bev Oda as the CIDA minister. She retired on July 31.

"Right now, millions of women, men and children in the Sahel are suffering from hunger and severe malnutrition," he said. "This is absolutely unacceptable. With generosity from Canadians, we can do more to respond to this crisis and support people in dire need."

The new cash commitment announced today is in addition to $47.5 million that was already given to World Vision Canada, the World Food Programme, and the Humanitarian Coalition, which includes Oxfam Canada, Oxfam Quebec Care Canada, Plan Canada and Save the Children.

The groups welcomed the government's new fund and said it will help raise the profile of a crisis that is affecting an estimated 18 million people.

"It will help ensure not only immediate life-saving assistance but also crucial investments in farming and herding so people can rebuild their lives despite adversity. With Canadians' generous donations and the government match, we can do our part to break the cycle of hunger in the Sahel," Oxfam Canada's executive director, Robert Fox, said in a statement.

The aid groups say that a combination of erratic rains, poor harvests, recurring drought and rising food costs has caused food shortages.

They have been warning for months about the impact of the food shortage and calling for early action before the situation in the Sahel worsens.