Food crisis looms as Ebola rampages through West Africa

Thursday, 2 October 2014 14:51 GMT

Health workers wearing protective clothing prepare to carry an abandoned body with Ebola symptoms at Duwala market in Monrovia. Picture August 17, 2014, REUTERS/2Tango

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Abandoned farms and border closures are harming economy, cutting food supply, many may go hungry

DAKAR/ROME, Oct 2 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - The mango season finished early for Mamadou Barry, a fruit vendor in Marche Kermel, an old covered market in the Senegalese capital Dakar. Where stalls once brimmed with tropical produce imported from neighbouring Guinea, the Ebola-related border closure has emptied the tables.

Barry, of Guinean origin like many storekeepers in Senegal, has been going back and forth between the two countries for three years. He says the government's positive aim of keeping Senegal Ebola-free has had a negative impact on his livelihood.

"With the shortage of fruit coming in our income has decreased. Some people manage to sneak across the border and get back without being caught, but most of us don't take that risk so we can't provide for our families," said Barry, 55, as he closed down his stall for the day.

Much of the produce in Kermel makes its way via the southern towns of Diaoube and Kedougou, which act as important commercial hubs, linking traders from Senegal, Mali, Sierra Leone, Guinea, Guinea Bissau and the Gambia.

However, Senegal and a handful of West African nations have closed their borders with the Ebola-stricken countries in order to control the importation of the deadly virus, which has killed more than 3,000 people since March, about half of those it infects.

Experts say border closures, enforced by the Senegalese government contrary to advice given by the World Health Organization, could have a serious impact on regional trade and disproportionately affect the poor during a record year for hunger in the region.

A recent anecdotal survey by the Word Food Programme (WFP) showed current trade volumes in these markets were 50 percent below the levels at the same time last year, a direct result of the August border closure, the second this year.

At the weekly market in Diaoube, only half the stalls were set up on Wednesday, the official market day. Only 10 to 20 large trucks are supplying Diaoube now, compared with 100 on an average market day last year, the survey report said.

As a result palm oil, garri (local flour), fruit and coffee from Guinea are in short supply. The price of palm oil, an important food item for many poor households in the region that is traded in large quantities, has increased 40 percent in four weeks, the report said.

"The government closed the border to stop contamination between countries, not to stop trade, but people are still crossing the border and trade has stopped. It's counterproductive," said Jerome Bernard, food assistance expert at ECHO, the European Union's humanitarian arm.

"If Ebola remains unchecked and the border remains closed, there is high risk for prices to increase and disrupt regional trade in these grain-producing areas, especially during the upcoming harvest," Bernard said, noting that if the sea ports closed too it would spell catastrophe.

ABANDONED FARMS

At the supply end in Guinea, Sierra Leone and Liberia, farmers frightened of contracting Ebola are staying away from their fields, prompting fears that a food crisis could follow the epidemic.

In Sierra Leone, for instance, preliminary data from the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) indicates that up to 40 percent of farms have been abandoned in the worst-affected areas.

"The Ebola outbreak is having a devastating impact on the agricultural and food sector of these countries," FAO economist Jean Senahoun told the Thomson Reuters Foundation in an interview.

"GDP growth has been cut in most of the affected countries. People will be out of work and won't be able to buy food, even if it's available in the markets," he said.

Agriculture drives economic growth in all three countries worst afflicted by Ebola. They stand to lose $359 million in economic output this year, according to the World Bank.

While worries of famine loom on the horizon, international organisations on the ground are focused on fighting immediate perils caused by the epidemic. The WFP has distributed around 6,000 tonnes of food to 430,000 people across the three countries since April.

"At the moment, the food response we are providing is really part of the medical response," WFP spokesman Alexis Masciarelli said in an interview with the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

A special vitamin-rich porridge, usually reserved for children suffering from malnutrition, is being fed to Ebola patients to help them regain strength during treatment and recovery.

Masciarelli worries that food prices could rise drastically in the medium term, but for now, treating Ebola victims is the first priority.

Back in Senegal, just days before the Muslim festival of sacrifice, Eid-al-Azha, which is observed in much of West Africa, Barry says opening the borders would be the best Eid present, but his thoughts are with his fellow countrymen.

"This year I don't have enough money to celebrate Eid, but for all my misfortune, the people in Guinea have it much worse than we do. I pray they can overcome this disease," he said.

(Reporting and writing by Misha Hussain in Dakar and Chris Arsenault in Rome; editing by Tim Pearce)

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