DIOURBEL, Senegal (AlertNet) – The next three weeks will be crucial in bringing much needed relief to about 18 million people facing hunger across eight countries in West Africa, the United Nations’ humanitarian chief warned on Thursday.
Valerie Amos, the U.N. humanitarian affairs and emergency relief coordinator, said the U.N. and its partners have raised half of the nearly $1 billion needed to fund humanitarian relief operations in West Africa’s Sahel region but donors needed to make an extra effort.
A combination of drought, failed crops, insect plagues, high food prices and conflict has led to an unfolding hunger crisis in the Sahel region – a semi-arid belt of land south of the Sahara desert.
“The critical period is in the next few weeks before the rainy season starts and things become even more difficult to get aid to the people,” Amos told AlertNet in Diourbel, about 134km west of Senegal’s capital Dakar. Amos was visiting malnutrition treatment centres.
Amos is visiting Senegal, where about 810,000 people are facing hunger, as part of a tour of West Africa to raise awareness of the food crisis in the Sahel region. Her first stop was in Burkina Faso at the start of the week.
A majority of those in urgent need of assistance are in remote areas with bad or inexistent roads which are hard to access when the rains come, experts say.
Aid groups started ringing alarm bells last year when assessments showed food production deficits in several countries in the Sahel region. They have been calling for international financial support to tackle the crisis but many are faced with shortfalls.
For instance, the U.N. World Food Programme’s (WFP) overall Sahel emergency operation, aiming to support nearly 10 million people, is facing a $360 million shortfall, the agency said this week.
“Over the next three to four weeks we have to have an additional push to do more,” Amos said.
STRATEGIES IN PLACE
Most of the governments in the region have drafted and launched strategies to respond to the crisis.
Aid agencies are on the ground running programmes to support governments in providing assistance to hungry people but these efforts need further support from the international community, she said.
“We have started (responding) earlier and if we give this (crisis) the attention that it requires then it would mean it does not get as bad as things got in the Horn of Africa last year,“ Amos said, referring to the severe food crisis that hit parts of east Africa and resulted to a partial famine declared in parts of Somalia.
Amos witnessed food distribution to vulnerable families in the village Ndoulo 15km from Diourbel, where many families had lost their harvests and had run out of food.
“I am very happy for the food aid. At least I can sleep at night in the knowledge that there is something for the children to eat,” said Aminta Gueye, 73.
Gueye, who lives with her daughter and five grandchildren, received a month’s ration of food for her family from the WFP.
“Since we had no harvest each morning we go out looking for what to feed the children with,” she told AlertNet.
Like the other families, she also received seeds and fertilisers from the U.N. Food and Agricultural Organisation (FAO) for the next planting season.
“It is important that we don’t just do immediate relief but we help people to restore their livelihoods. People need to plant so that in the next harvest they people have something to eat,” Amos said.
National cereal production is down by 36 percent compared to 2010, according to a study by the Senegalese government and the WFP.