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Act now to avoid another crisis, say aid agencies

Severely malnourished children in Tahoua, Niger, holding a packet of Plumpy'nut
(Catherine-Lune Grayson/IRIN)

Aid agencies are warning donors to act now to avert a drought and food security crisis that could mean over 11 million people sink into further food insecurity, poverty or malnutrition.

Millions of farmers and pastoralist families have still not yet recovered from a drought and poor harvest which destroyed their livelihoods and eroded their food security in 2009.

Governments, UN agencies and NGOs estimate six million people are highly vulnerable to food insecurity and possible related impoverishment and malnutrition in Niger; 2.9 million in Mali; 700,000 - over quarter of the population - in Mauritania; and over two million in Burkina Faso; while in Chad 13 out of 22 of the regions could be affected by food insecurity.

Poor rains in parts of Niger, Mauritania, Chad and Burkina Faso - as well as pockets in other countries in the Sahel - have led to poor cereal production. That, combined with other factors mean for many, the lean season, which traditionally starts in March or April, could come as early as January.

Contributing to Sahelians’ vulnerability are: very high regional food prices - the cost of cereals in the region is 40 percent higher now than the past five years’ average, according to NGO Oxfam; a drought as recently as 2009 which meant despite good rains in 2010 poor farmers and herders had sold off all of their food or animal stocks and not had time to rebuild them; and lost remittances not only from returnee workers from Libya, but also potentially from Europe.

Re-stocking can take a decade

“The intervals between these crises are getting smaller, so there is a very small amount of time to recover in between them,” Thomas Yanga, regional director of the World Food Programme (WFP), told reporters at a press conference last week:

Poor herders in 14 areas of Niger lost 90 percent of their livestock in the 2009 crisis, according to a government study. Oxfam’s Niger country programme director, Mohamed Aly Ag Hamana, told IRIN it takes at least three years to rebuild a small stock of sheep and goats, and up to 10 years to build up cattle stocks.

The Sahel is chronically vulnerable to malnutrition, food insecurity and drought - even in good harvest years one third of Chad’s population is chronically undernourished, according to the Sahel Working Group; while in 2010, despite very strong harvests, 250,000 children in Niger were acutely malnourished, said Cyprien Fabre, ECHO (EU aid) head in West Africa.

“This year the harvest was poor-to-average, not catastrophic, but the region could still face crisis,” said Remi Dourlot, spokesperson at the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs.

While cereal production overall in West Africa is 25 percent down on 2010, according to the Permanent Inter-State Committee to Prevent Drought in the Sahel (CILLS), Chad and Mauritania face 50 percent drops on 2010; and drops of 28 and 38 percent respectively compared to the past five years, according to Oxfam’s economy justice campaign manager Eric Hazard.

Already in crisis

Some Sahelians are already facing crisis conditions, said Oxfam’s joint Mali head Marietou Diaby.

According to her, some herders in Kayes in western Mali are already starting to sell off their stocks, while pastoralists in Mali, Niger, Chad and Mauritania started to move in search of pasture one month ago, which in good years, they only begin to do in January.

Such early movements could lead to overgrazing and an upsurge of conflict in places like the Niger Delta, Gourma in northern Mali, Lake Chad, the northern Gulf of Guinea, southern Chad, and other areas, warn WFP and the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) in their monthly food security review.

Map showing the Sahel region across northern Africa

The Sahel region: The Great Green Wall project was originally proposed by Burkina Faso’s Marxist leader Thomas Sankara in the 1980s
Wikimedia Commons
Map showing the Sahel region across northern Africa
Thursday, April 7, 2011
Opposition building to Great Green Wall
Map showing the Sahel region across northern Africa

Photo: Wikimedia Commons
Map of the drought-prone Sahel

If immediate interventions do not take place, livestock prices will plummet, making it more and more difficult for herders to buy grain. About half of all the livestock in Mauritania and Chad lack sufficient pasture, according to Oxfam’s Hamana, who stressed: “We must help pastoralists destock now, before prices drop.”

Even with stable livestock prices, high grain costs are already barring many herders from purchasing food, said Diaby.

And food is becoming scarce in some markets: for instance, scarce millet and sorghum stocks in Mali mean the only cereal available from wholesalers in the capital Bamako’s Bagadadji market, is grain, according to WFP and FAO.

In Tilabéri in northwestern Niger, children are already being kept away from school and young men have left in search of work.

This should be a time of plenty, said Yanga. “We should not be seeing these market conditions at this time of year,” he said.

What is needed

As well as timely destocking, investment in water projects; better distribution and storage of animal feed to save livestock; income-generation, social protection activities and efforts to boost nutrition in the Sahel are needed, according to the Sahel Working Group in their paper, Escaping the Hunger Cycle in the Sahel.

If governments, aid agencies and donors act fast when an acute food crisis occurs, they can prevent the immense damage to livelihoods and the loss of productive assets by vulnerable households, they say.

The more-frequent droughts hitting the Sahel point to the need for a different kind of response, said WFP’s Yanga, encompassing early warning, addressing root causes, and chronic nutritional problems. “These crises are recurring more frequently… We don’t know if this will last, but it’s a trend that we’re also seeing elsewhere."

More long-term investment is needed in the region, said Oxfam emergency advocate, Stephen Cockburn. “Even after the crises of 2005 and 2009 there has been a lack of investment in sustainable agriculture and programmes to reduce poverty,” he told IRIN.

There’s still time

There is still time to avert wide-scale crisis, said Oxfam’s Hazard, citing some positive factors: “Early warnings are coming very promptly; affected governments are acting early this year… and some donors have also responded early to avert crisis.”

Niger was the first country to launch an emergency appeal, in early November, and map out its response plan; Mauritania and Burkina Faso are both currently mapping out their responses, which will include subsidizing cereal sales, distributing food, replenishing national cereal stocks and in Niger’s case, launching a livestock investment programme.

ECHO announced a US$13 million intervention last week to mitigate disaster in the region, while the UN’s Central Emergency Response Fund has released US$6 million to WFP, FAO and the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF) to build up their responses.

Other donors must follow suit, said Cockburn. “We have no excuse to make the same mistakes as in the past,” he told IRIN.

Early action is cheaper than emergency response, stressed Oxfam quoting ex-UN emergencies head Jan Egeland’s figures that it would have cost US$1 per day to prevent acute malnutrition among children in the Sahel in 2004 but by 2005 the cost of saving a malnourished child’s life was US$80 per day.

Fabre hopes other donors will shift their approach to focus on resilience both pre- and post-crises. After all, “we can’t do emergency responses every year - it’s unsustainable,” he said.


This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information: https://shop.un.org/rights-permissions

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