"The funding for the whole effort is what I would characterize as pretty anaemic," said Robert Piper, the UN regional humanitarian coordinator for the Sahel. "We are well short of what we require, and to make the task even more difficult, the budget has increased since the beginning of the year."
Due to the influx of refugees from the ongoing crisis in the Central African Republic into neighbouring Sahel countries, an additional $200 million was added to the initial appeal to provide life-saving assistance to the more than 2.4 million refugees, internally displaced people and returnees now living in the region, as well as the host communities taking them in.
"Outside the usual recurring situations in the Sahel, the conflict in CAR and northern Nigeria is quite worrisome this year, as are the collateral effects in neighbouring Chad and Cameroon," said Stephane Doyon, a regional emergency response representative for Médecins Sans Frontières. "The refugees have lots of needs, which are additional needs to be met. "
Since the beginning of the year, the number of people who have crossed the threshold from food insecure to severely food insecure, also rose, jumping from 2.5 million in January, to 5 or 6 million now, as the lean season begins.
"So we started the year with some big numbers, and the trend, sadly, is on the increase and not the decrease," Piper said.
This has put even more of Sahel's already vulnerable households at risk of developing negative coping strategies, such as migrating, begging, selling livestock or assets, and reducing their number of daily meals.
Stubbornly high malnutrition rates
Moderate and severe acute malnutrition rates among children under five remain "stubbornly high", at around 3.5 million and 1.5 million, respectively.
While experts say it is too early to make any definitive predictions about crop production this year, there is concern about certain parts of the Sahel, including the coastal areas of Senegal, Mauritania and the Gambia, and the area around Lake Chad, where, more than a month into the normal wet season, there still has been little to no rain. In other parts of these countries, rains started on time, but have since stopped, or come with long gaps in between, and the seeds that were planted have died.
A delayed rainy season has also meant a longer than usual lean season for pastoralists, who rely on rainfall for vegetation to feed their animals.
"The current situation in the Sahel is quite difficult, and we are now entering a period of further hardship," said Patrick David, a food security analyst for the UN Food and Agriculture Organization's (FAO) Regional Resilience, Emergency and Rehabilitation Office for West Africa and the Sahel.
He said many households have already used up last year's food stocks and been forced to buy from the market, where rising food prices further strain already limited resources.
FAO says it is working to build resilience in the Sahel through activities such as supporting animal husbandry, agriculture, cereal banks, access to credit and other social protection programmes.
However, only $7.5 million, or 14 percent, of FAO's $116 million appeal (included in the inter-agency Sahel appeal) has been met. While this is nearly on a par with last year's July funding gap of 14.8 percent, it is much lower than 25 percent that was met at this time in 2012.
"We really need to continue to be vigilant about hunger in the Sahel and donors need to continue to aid response efforts, because for those vulnerable households who are currently moderately food insecure, who don't have support or who are maybe at their limit for food security, they could become severely food insecure over the coming year," David said.
The World Food Programme (WFP) says it has been experiencing similar difficulties. While they have tried to keep all their programmes running, many have been scaled down due to a $230 million shortfall of funds across all the countries they work in.
"It's really difficult for us to continue implementing these programmes without adequate funding," said Benoit Thiry, WFP's country director in Niger.
He said that in Niger, for example, WFP planned to target close to 2 million people in 2014, but has so far only been able to assist 500,000 because of budget constraints.
Competition for funds
One of the reasons for this year's gap could be that the Sahel is competing for funds among increasing needs around the world.
Globally, humanitarian funding needs increased from $12.8 billion in 2013, of which $8.3 billion was funded, to $16.9 billion in 2014. A large reason for this increase is the crisis in Syria, the needs for which jumped more than $4 billion in a year.
"This has put tremendous pressure on donor budgets," Piper said. "And it's not very obvious who to turn to, because the biggest donors [the European Union, USA, Japan and UK] have already put their resources on the table," he said.
To help meet some of the unmet needs, the UN Central Emergency Response Fund (CERF) released $30.5 million on 23 July to help with relief efforts in seven countries in the Sahel.
There remains, however, "fatigue" among other donors.
"Donors keep watching these numbers go up and desperately want reassurance that their funds are being used properly, but even more fundamentally, that there is a way out of this suffering for all their financial investment," Piper said.
Given the recurrent funding gaps, governments need to start playing more of a role in combating food insecurity and building up resilience.
Stop the crisis cycle
"Year after year, we are returning to the same regions, to the same communities, even to the same households and so governments really need to put more long-term, predictable safety nets in place to support these people," said Piper.
This means addressing some of the key underlying issues that are making it difficult for people to break out of the cycle of crisis, including extending people's access to basic services, such as health, education and sanitation, investing in climate change adaptation strategies, such as flood mitigation and seed research, and investing in water management projects, like irrigation systems.
Governments also need to start putting aside more money for emergency response efforts, and policymakers need to make their most vulnerable members of society a priority. Financially, this is difficult, however, in light of increasing security budget needs.
"Even though many countries are now putting food security and nutrition high on their priority list," Thiry said, "they still lack the money and often the capacity to put such projects in motion. So if we really want to build up this idea of resilience, and take the heads of people out of the water, we need to invest more than what we are doing now."
While there is evidence of more government involvement happening in some countries, such as Burkina Faso, which is funding for the first time the inputs for an acute malnutrition programme, it just is not enough.
"So we really need donors to stay their course," Piper said. "They've been generous to date, but they need to stay with this region, which is still facing enormous issues. and continue to support this effort to transform the region away from this cycle of crisis."