The rains have come, but food crisis continues to afflict West Africa, hitting Chad hard

By Coco McCabe
Women in Chad dig for food that ants have buried.

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Though pastures are greening as the rains have come—sometimes with destructive force—many people in parts of West Africa’s Sahel region continue to face a food crisis, particularly in Chad, where a recent survey found that one in four children under the age of five is malnourished.

Millions of people in the region—including Niger, Mali, and Burkina Faso-- have confronted food shortages as a consequence of erratic rains in 2008 and 2009 that led to poor harvests, withered pastures, and a lack of water. Widespread poverty has compounded those challenges.

For many, the difficulty in the weeks leading up to the this year’s harvest in October and November is particularly acute as they have exhausted not only their food supplies but have sold off assets, such as livestock, in an effort to feed their families.

While Niger has been at the epicenter of the crisis, with about seven million people facing hunger—almost half its population--forecasters are now predicting a solid harvest for the country, even as flooding wiped out some fields and killed many heads of livestock. And a good distribution of rains in Burkina Faso has meant the crops are growing well there, also.

But robust harvests won’t ease the strain for many families who have gone deep into debt trying to feed themselves. One good harvest will not be enough for them to recover.

Additionally, some families have not been able to plant at all: They had no choice but to eat the seeds they intended to sow.

For herders who rely mostly on their animals for food and income, the rains have restored the grass in their pastures, which in turn has improved the health of their livestock. As cattle and goats grow stronger again, their value goes up, giving owners more purchasing power in the local markets.

Families who earn their living from crops grown in rain-fed fields, however, continue to struggle.

“For non-pastoralist communities who depend on a good harvest, we have not yet seen the end,” said Oxfam’s West Africa emergency coordinator, Philippe Conraud, speaking to the IRIN news agency about Mali. “We are still in the peak of crisis, and emergency activities need to continue.”

Trouble in Chad

The problems in Chad are particularly worrisome. About 60 percent of the households, or 1.6 million people, in the western part of the country are grappling with a severe food crisis. For those suffering from malnutrition, access to care can be a challenge: Some patients have to travel more than 120 miles to reach health facilities.

The prices of basic commodities in the markets continue to rise and overall food prices are at least 35 percent higher than the five-year average. Additionally, with the arrival of the rainy season, floods have affected more than 100,000 people in nine regions of Chad, destroying homes and wrecking crops. And now there is a new threat: cholera. Hundreds of cases have been reported.

Looking ahead

Oxfam, which has helped more than 600,000 people snared by the crisis, is calling for a scaled-up response now—and over the long-term.

“Many people have lost everything due to the severity of the crisis. They have lost their livestock, their livelihoods and are now in excessive debt,” says Dawit Beyene, Oxfam America’s deputy director of humanitarian response. “We need flexible and predictable funding to support the development of national social protection systems and sustainable livelihoods, and to increase the provision of essential services to prevent future crises.”

In Chad, Oxfam has been helping people in the Sila and Guéra regions by distributing food and running agricultural and livelihood support projects. In Niger, the ganecy has organized the distribution of food and fodder, provided cereals at subsidized prices, distributed seeds, and bought weakened livestock from herders at above-market prices, distributing the meat for free to the poorest families. And in Mali Oxfam has been distributing food and animal feed as well.

 “The situation in West Africa may seem impossibly complex and difficult to solve but if only the international community would invest in long-term predictable development work we could make sure families are a lot less vulnerable to shocks in the future,” says Raphael Sindaye, Oxfam’s deputy regional director in West Africa.