For the third time in a decade, a drought is threatening millions of people in the Sahel, the swath across Africa bordering the Sahara desert. Up to 12 million people, including nearly three million children, are at risk of a severe food crisis without a major humanitarian response to help those affected.
“There’s already 40 percent malnutrition in some areas,” said Bill Canny, CRS Director for Emergency Operations, who recently traveled to Niger to see first-hand the effects of the drought. “It’s a disaster for millions of families.”
Many in the Sahel always live close to the edge as rains come only once a year, meaning the hunger season – when crops and pasture are used up in between harvests – comes every year. This past year, those rains came late if at all and those millions close to the edge were pushed over it, in need of food for themselves and pasture for their animals.
A number of countries have been especially hard hit by poor harvests — parts of Chad, Niger, Mali, Mauritania, Burkina Faso, Senegal, Gambia, Cameroon and northern Nigeria. Approximately 80 percent of the people in these countries rely on agriculture and the late, irregular, and short rainfalls led to low cereal production in many regions. The worst of the crisis is still to come, expected from March to August.
Unless urgent humanitarian action is taken, the situation in the Sahel might unfold just as the devastating drought that gripped East Africa in 2011 did. During the height of that crisis, more than 13 million people were left in desperate need of humanitarian assistance and tens of thousands died from hunger.
While drought has been the major driver of food insecurity in the Sahel, other factors have also contributed to the crisis across this semi-arid region. Bad harvests have led to higher food prices, which went higher still when insects attacked the little crops that did appear, especially in countries like Niger.
“Food prices have gone up, meaning food at local markets is no longer affordable for those who do have money,” Canny said. “I sat and talked with the elders and the women in the villages of Tolkobey and Sangare [in Niger]. The women told me how little food they have for their children. They’re down to eating two meals a day – and in a month it’ll be just one meal. The children who were watching us in the background were showing signs of under-nourishment.”
Manmade difficulties in the surrounding region are also contributing to the problem. The violence in Nigeria and instability in Ivory Coast has restricted the migration of people who depend on seasonal work. Workers returned home from Ivory Coast and Libya due to political violence in 2011, ending a flow of remittances that has affected many families in the region.
In Niger, thousands of refugees streaming across the border with Mali are putting an additional strain on already meager resources, with 500 additional refugees arriving each day. Refugees began entering Niger from Mali in late January, following an armed conflict between the Malian army and Tuareg rebels. Many of them fled their homes without any belongings, leaving behind homes, family and their livelihoods, and adding to the 2.3 million people without enough to eat in Niger.
In the coming months, CRS plans to help those caught up in the Sahel food crisis with food distributions and the provision of animal feed vouchers in Burkina Faso, Mali and Niger. Plans are also in place to assist farmers to better manage meager water resources. Closer to the rainy season, there will be seed distributions for planting as well as cash and food-for-work programs to keep people employed and productive.
“The programs will help build resilience and benefit the communities long-term,” Canny explains.
To arrange an interview with CRS experts on the food crisis in the Sahel, contact Kim Pozniak.