Food crisis grips Sahel region of West Africa, 10 million affected

By Cristina Vazquez Moreno
A woman outside a village in Chad digs through anthills in search grain. Photo: Oxfam

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Some equipped with shovels, others with children in tow, the women of Djaya , Chad, head out in the early morning with a determination born of necessity. Their destination is the anthills that dot the fields around their village. Desperation has driven them to raid the homes of these insects, searching for small caches of grain the bugs have stored there.

This is the reality of hunger in the Sahel region of West Africa, where more than 10 million people are now in the grip of a food crisis triggered, in part, by patchy rainfall last year thatled to a plunge in the production of cereals. In Chad alone, the cereal harvest fell by 34 percent. And pasture—critical for the well-being of the region’s livestock on which many families depend for food and income—is severely lacking because of the poor rains.

But the increasing intensity of seasonal droughts is not the only source of the problem. A lack of investment in agriculture and herding, and insecure land tenure also play a role in the suffering some of the world’s poorest people endure.

In Niger, where the crisis stalks more than seven million people, the country’s youngest children are among the hardest hit. IRIN, the UN news agency, reported in late June that acute malnutrition rates  among children younger than five in Niger had spiked 42 percent higher than they were this time a year ago—to nearly 17 percent.  That means almost half a million children are acutely malnourished, according to IRIN. Many others—almost half of Niger’s children—live with chronic undernourishment, said IRIN.

Other countries are affected by the food crisis, too: Mali, Mauritania, Burkina Faso, northern Cameroon, and northern Nigeria.

Early warning systems revealed last fall that the Sahel was headed toward trouble, but the alarms failed to rouse a robust regional and international response. The amount of emergency assistance has, so far, been insufficient to meet the large-scale needs of the region. The West Africa consolidated appeal—a joint humanitarian fund-raising effort by groups working in the region, including the UN—is only 36 percent funded. The appeal includes support for food security activities in Niger, Mali, Burkina Faso, and Mauritania. About $69 million is needed to respond to the emergency in Niger alone. In Chad, the World Food Program needs almost $20 million to respond to rising food needs.

With the next harvest months away, and the approaching rainy season threatening to impede delivery of assistance to more remote areas, concerns of farmers like Fadoul Acheul are growing more acute. He is a 53-year-old father of eight children living on the outskirts of Mongo in Chad and has run out of options that could help tide his family over.

“The mango trees haven’t borne fruit this year, so we can’t sell those,” he said in April. “Also, there isn’t enough water to maintain our family orchard.” The family had used up its store of cereal a month earlier and was relying only on the income Fadoul’s wife made by selling a few items in the market.

The day Fadoul lamented his dry orchard was the day he had to make a decision—the same one many families now confront: selling their livestock. To get food, Fadoul sold his last ram, fetching just enough money to keep his family going for another week.

“Five years ago, the world ignored the warning signs from Niger, failed to act rapidly, and lives were lost,” said Mamadou Biteye, an Oxfam regional director in West Africa. “The international community cannot make the same mistake and again condemn many children to an early death.”

Oxfam has launched an emergency program to provide support to 800,000 people across Niger, Mali, and Chad. In Niger, the organization is helping 400,000 people by distributing food and supplies to the poorest households. Oxfam is also buying weak livestock at above-market rates to help herders who need to sell some of their animals. Meat from the livestock is being distributed to some of the most vulnerable households.  In Mali, the organization will help 200,000 people by distributing food as well as fodder for livestock.  And in Chad, distributions of food and seeds are accompanying agriculture support projects, with a goal of helping 200,000 people.