Governments, aid agencies and donors must join forces now to ensure that severe food insecurity in the Sahel does not lead to famine, says the European Commission humanitarian aid department (ECHO).
“The situation is rapidly evolving,” ECHO Africa head Brian O’Neill told reporters in Dakar on 28 January, calling Niger “the epicentre of the crisis”.
“But it is not too late; if we all work fast and preemptively we can mitigate the impact.”
He said local authorities are aware of the problem and that something needs to be done. "That is a plus. We're already on the ground; a strong team is in place; partners [governments, NGOs and UN agencies] are monitoring the situation."
Erratic rains – beginning late and ending early – led to poor 2009 agricultural production in Niger, according to the US-funded Famine Early Warning Systems Network, FEWSNET.
Three indicators of a crisis are already apparent in parts of Chad and Niger, ECHO's O'Neill said: high food prices, low livestock prices and low wages. A sack of millet in the agro-pastoralist area of Zinder in southern Niger costs $42 versus $25 this time last year, according to O’Neill, who recently visited the region.
In Niger families usually start showing susceptibility to hunger during the April to September lean season, but this year households are already showing signs of vulnerability, according to FEWSNET and aid officials.
Families are selling off livestock and many pastoralists who generally migrate in search of pasture and water in March started to move as early as November 2009.
Grain stocks in Niger are at an estimated 30-percent deficit, or one million tons; the government is still assessing stocks, according to ECHO.
While cost estimates are likely to shift, a 25 January Niger government report projected that US$220 million would be needed to tackle food insecurity in 2010.
Donors and partners are discussing potential responses with the authorities in Burkina Faso, Chad and Niger.
O'Neill said an effective and efficient response would require strong leadership from the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA).
By the end of 2010 ECHO will have committed $140 million to a malnutrition prevention programme in the Sahel. Other donors, including USAID and the UK Department for International Development, are increasing their contributions to combating malnutrition.
Each year in the Sahel 300,000 under-five children die of malnutrition, according to the UN Children’s Fund.
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