Sahel Area of Africa Threatened by Looming Food Crisis

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Famine in Somalia over, but millions more at risk of hunger

In January, the United Nations declared the famine in Somalia over; but the region is still in a precarious situation, with millions of people on the brink. And while food needs in East Africa persist, another food crisis is looming in West Africa’s Sahel region.

According to the U.N.’s World Food Programme (WFP), millions of people in countries such as Niger, Mauritania, Mali, Chad, Senegal, Gambia, Burkina Faso, and Nigeria, are at risk of hunger in the coming months.

At a recent emergency meeting of humanitarian agencies in Rome, former WFP Director Josette Sheeran called for an “urgent scale up of humanitarian, rehabilitation and development assistance to address rising levels of hunger and malnutrition caused by the combined effects of drought, high food prices, displacement and conflict affecting the Sahel region of West Africa.”

According to the WFP, the crisis is the result of a severe drought that destroyed the majority of the harvest in the region last year.

“The drought is severe and officials have been calling for urgent intervention to prevent a famine,” the WFP stated.

For organizations like Canadian Foodgrains Bank, which responded to the crisis in East Africa last year, the coming crisis is an opportunity to be proactive in responding to food needs in those countries.

“There was a general sense among the humanitarian community that we could have responded more quickly in East Africa,” says Grant Hillier, who directs International Programs at Canadian Foodgrains Bank.

“We are working with our members and partners to see how we can best respond in West Africa with timely and effective programs.”

At the best of time, Hillier notes, rains come to the Sahel only once a year.

This year, he says, the rains “were late and patchy, causing a poor harvest. With so many people in the area relying on rain-fed agriculture, many people will not produce enough food to feed their families.”

For Hillier, it is crucial “to get food to people who need it so that they don’t use coping mechanisms, such as selling their livestock. That only drives them deeper into debt or poverty.”

The Sahel region is no stranger to drought or to food insecurity; over the last decade at least three droughts have hit the area. But this time around the food crisis is expected to be more serious and affect many more people.

Adding to the stress are high food prices, partly the result of scarcity in the affected countries. The government of Niger, for example, has reported a harvest deficit for 2011of 519,600 tonnes of cereals. Other countries in the area are also projecting decreases in agricultural production.

Low yields means more farmers will have to purchase more food, driving food prices up even higher.

“The Foodgrains Bank is monitoring the situation closely,” says Hillier. “We’re looking for ways to assist those in need of food.”

Map courtesy of Blan.