Many crises are so visually dramatic that people respond generously very quickly. Last year a massive earthquake hit northeastern Japan, indirectly threatening a nuclear catastrophe at Fukushima. Floods in Pakistan triggered a similar response, as did the earthquake that devastated Haiti in 2010 or the huge Indian Ocean tsunami in 2004. The Sahel belt of states is not well known. It runs beneath the Sahara from West Africa to the Red Sea and includes huge countries like Mali, Mauritania, Niger, Chad, Burkina Faso and Senegal. Some of these are huge states, with Mauritania much bigger than France. Delicate: Millions of people in West Africa are facing starvation It is a delicate environment, dependent on a few months of monsoon-like rain between July and September, when warm air from equatorial Africa bumps into the dry desert climate to the north. The region is susceptible to long-term drought; apparently the latest cycle began in the 1960s when rainfall dropped off. At present some 15 million people across the Sahel are on the brink of starvation. They have already cut back on food, while withdrawing children from school, or sending older ones to work in such towns as there are. Upheaval: The Sahel states are facing an influx of refugees following the fighting in Libya This crisis only partly reflects what is undoubtedly a major regional drought or current global volatility in food prices because of drought (the US and Russia) or excess rainfall (much of Europe). As is usual, many of the Sahel's problems are man-made. The war in Libya has led to the expulsion of many West African remittance men, who worked there and sent their families most of their wages, because Gaddafi's forces included large numbers of mercenaries lent by states like Chad. Black Africans are not popular in the new Libya. Then there are internal displacements of refugees. Mali and Mauritania have major problems with both armed Islamists and Tuareg separatists, all armed to the teeth with weapons purloined from Libya, from whom large numbers of people have fled. Niger has had to accommodate about 200,000 people fleeing strife torn Mali. Very few of the Sahel states can cope with their existing populations, never mind when these are suddenly augmented by hundreds of thousands of indigent refugees. Islamists have also helped shut down one major source of potential relief. The activities of the Islamist terror organisation Boko Haram in Northern Nigeria have made it too dangerous for traders to take food from there to the neighbouring Sahel states. The main border crossing point near Maiduguri is Boko Haram's main base. Last but not least, we are talking about eight contiguous states. Moving food supplies around means endless border and customs checks, with every official seeking a bribe. This in itself slows down any attempt to bring speedy relief to people who are starving. The looming crisis in the Sahel may not have the visual impact of vast amounts of water sloshing around Japanese cities, but it is no less deadly for that as UNICEF is warning that 1.5 million children are facing starvation.