Africa's Sahel region braces for record hunger

by Misha Hussain | | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Friday, 26 April 2013 09:06 GMT

Women walk several kilometres for clean water in the Matam district of Senegal, on April 16, 2013. Thomson Reuters Foundation/Misha Hussain

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With 10 million facing food insecurity, this year hunger and malnutrition may be worse than in 2012’s West Africa food crisis; floods, drought and conflict compound the problem

MADINA TOROBE, Senegal (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - There has not been a drop of rain in more than six months. The scorching Saharan breeze has withered away life in this village on the southwestern frontier of the Sahel region, which is still reeling from four droughts over the past decade.

Malnutrition, coupled with a lack of clean water and sanitation, is battering the population.

“We had already come down from three meals a day to twice a day, or even once. When Yaya picked up a stomach infection we got worried,” Rouguy Ly, a mother of eight, said of her 15-month-old son who fell ill last December.

“He was already weak, and now he refused to eat and had diarrhoea. We took him to the village health centre, but they had run out of zinc and oral rehydration solution, so the nurse showed us how to make our own using salt, sugar and water.”

Nonetheless, his health deteriorated, and he barely survived after being treated for severe acute malnutrition in the only hospital here in Matam district.

Despite early indications the Sahel would not suffer pangs of hunger this year, experts now worry that food insecurity could be worse than in 2012 - the year of the West Africa food crisis.

UNICEF estimated that 22,336 Senegalese children suffered severe acute malnutrition last year. Although gross cereal production in the region was 16 percent higher this year than in 2012, the situation appears to have deteriorated, and UNICEF estimates the number of severely malnourished Senegalese children will top 60,000.

“I had got reports that the harvest was better than normal, so I had expected to see a decline in the vulnerability of the population, in particular malnourished children. However, I saw the opposite in a rather dramatic way,” Claus Sorenson, the director general of European Community Humanitarian Office (ECHO) told Thomson Reuters Foundation after his visit to Mali, Niger, Chad and Senegal in April.

Ten million people in the Sahel remain food insecure, and 4.5 million children under-five are at risk of acute malnutrition.

“These numbers should have come down. It means we are heading for something nasty,” Sorenson said.


Floods in northern Nigeria as well as conflict throughout the region are thought to be the main causes for increasing food insecurity throughout the Sahel.

Nigeria, the breadbasket that supplies up to three-quarters of the region’s food, witnessed a 6 percent reduction in cereal and tuber production after the 2012 floods, offsetting the region’s surplus from the good harvest, according to Oxfam.

Nigeria is replenishing its stock with produce from neighbouring countries, where food prices have rocketed as a result.

“Market prices in southern Niger are now an unprecedented 50 per cent higher than the five-year average and 10 per cent higher than last year when we had the food crisis,” Sorenson said.

Food scarcity has led to more people joining rebel groups such as Boko Haram - exacerbating food insecurity and raising prices as these groups disrupt the movement of goods across borders.

“You see these vast parts of the population without any future. Even I would become a revolutionary, if I were suffering this kind of situation,” Sorenson said.

The conflict in Mali has also caused strains, with supply routes closing and Arab traders who supplied markets in the country’s north fleeing. After the start of the French intervention in January, food prices in northern Mali shot up 25 to 35 percent, prompting NGOs to warn that the area was on the verge of a humanitarian emergency.

Pastoralist refugees fleeing Mali with their animals to Niger, Mauritania and Burkina Faso have raised tensions. According to Oxfam, around 230,000 animals have been taken to Mauritania alone, placing pressure on fodder and water sources.


Meanwhile, donors have tightened their purse strings.

The U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) has secured only a quarter of the funding needed to address the crisis.

According to Oxfam humanitarian campaign manager Elise Ford, “2013 is at risk of becoming a black hole for funding. It is a key transition year to help lift populations out of crisis and get them on the road to recovery. We need both [short-term] humanitarian assistance and long-term funding to build resilience.”

The financial crisis has also played a role in unmet funds. OCHA tweeted this month that 2012 was the “first time since 1996-97, official dev [development] assistance aid has fallen in two successive years.”

The EU aims to mobilise €1.5 billion on resilience in the Sahel between 2014 and 2020. Through the Global Alliance for Resilience Initiative (AGIR), ECHO hopes to achieve “zero hunger” in the Sahel within 20 years.  

“If we don’t get to the root causes, if we don’t look seriously at what generates the hunger or malnutrition, then we’re shooting ourselves in the foot,” Sorenson said. “In all honesty, what’s the point in saving a life now if the life is lost next year?”

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