Some 13 million people are at severe risk from a food crisis, which is set to escalate into a full scale humanitarian emergency in the Sahel region of West and Central Africa if urgent action is not taken, international humanitarian organization Oxfam warned today.
Across Chad, Burkina Faso, Mali, Mauritania, Niger, and northern Senegal malnutrition rates hover between 10 and 15 percent, and in some areas, rates have risen beyond the emergency threshold level of 15 percent. Over one million children are at risk of severe acute malnutrition.
In parts of Chad, some villagers have been reduced to pounding ant hills to gather grain the ants have stored. They say unless they get help, they will have to abandon their villages in a month’s time.
“Millions of people are on the threshold of a major crisis. All signs point to a drought becoming a catastrophe if nothing is done soon. The world cannot allow this to happen. A concerted aid effort is needed to stop tens of thousands dying due to international complacency,” said Mamadou Biteye, Oxfam Regional Director for West Africa.
“We witnessed last year the situation spiraling out of control in East Africa as the aid community failed to act swiftly. The worst can be avoided and thousands of lives will be saved if we act now. It’s that simple.”
Oxfam said that a lethal mix of drought, high food prices, entrenched poverty, and regional conflict is behind the crisis.
Across the region, food prices are higher by an average of 25 to 50 percent compared with the last five years’ average. Prices could increase by another 25 to 30 percent by the peak of the hunger season in July and August, putting the most vulnerable families at increased risk of malnutrition.
The hunger season has started early in the Tillabery region in western Niger. Communities are seeing their food stocks dwindle and their debts pile up. Families are migrating to the cities in search of food and jobs. Some 33,000 children have dropped out of school, according to government’s figures, as they follow their parents.
Erratic rains caused a poor harvest especially in Niger, Chad, Mauritania, Mali, and Burkina Faso. Added to this, people have had little time to recover from the food crisis of 2010. People have been hit by an increase in the frequency and severity of food crises in the Sahel region in the last decade.
In Mauritania, 700,000 people, nearly a quarter of all families, have difficulty meeting their daily food needs. In Chad, 3.5 million people, more than 30 percent of the population, are food insecure. In parts of Senegal, there has also been an increase in its population facing food insecurity.
According to the Food and Agriculture Organization, agricultural production in the region is down 25 percent from 2010. The grain harvest is down by 1.4 million tons (metric tons) for the six Sahel countries. The most affected country is Mauritania, with a 52 percent drop in crop production from last year, while Chad’s food production is down by 50 percent and Niger’s is 27 percent.
Although harvests in neighboring food exporting countries such as Nigeria, Benin, and Ghana have been reasonable, it is unlikely surpluses will be able to fill the food needs in the Sahel. Security, the capacity of traders and the introduction of trade restrictions in several countries have also been disrupting the flow of food. Currently, food aid bought locally is 15 to 20 percent cheaper than on the international market but with high prices and uncertainty of supply the costs of supplying food will be much higher than it was in the 2010 food crisis.
The conflict in Northern Mali has also forced 160,000 to flee their homes with more than half of them escaping to neighboring countries of Niger, Burkina Faso, and Mauritania. Violence in Nigeria has also caused a drop in the volume of grains entering Niger and Chad.
Oxfam said that, with the next harvests not due until October, a concerted aid effort is needed. The UN estimates that $724 million is needed to address current needs, an amount that could rise as the crisis progresses. While some rich countries have started to donate, the European Union in particular donating generously and early, more than half of the amount is still needed.
Oxfam needs to raise $37 million to meet the needs of around one million people it plans to help across the Sahel region with vital aid such as food, cash, support to livestock, water, sanitation, and hygiene promotion campaigns.