Almost 10 million people across the Sahel region of West Africa are threatened with a severe food shortage, international aid agency Oxfam said today. The worst affected country is Niger where eight million people are at risk. Some two million people are threatened in Chad and a substantial number of people are expected to be affected in Mali in the coming months. Parts of Nigeria and Burkina Faso are also at risk.
The agency called upon developed countries to respond urgently to the early warning of impending disaster, citing delays during the Niger food crisis in 2005 that unnecessarily cost lives.
“We are witnessing an unfolding disaster which can be averted if the world acts swiftly. Five years ago the world ignored the warning signs from Niger, failed to act rapidly and lives were lost. The international community cannot make the same mistake and again condemn many children to an early death,” said Mamadou Biteye, Oxfam’s West Africa Regional Director.
Irregular rains in 2009 have led to a severe lack of pasture, water and a poor harvest. In Niger, the harvest has fallen by 26 percent as compared with the previous year, and some areas, especially the Diffa in the east of country and Tillabéry to the west, have had no harvest at all. In Chad, harvests have fallen by 34 percent. The areas of Hadjer Lamis, Batha, Kanem, Guera regions and eastern Chad are expected to be hit hard, especially from June 2010. Overall, the harvest in the Sahel has decreased by 9 percent with great disparities between East and West Sahel.
Prices of cereals are high and increasing. Millet and sorghum prices are up to respectively 25 and 50 percent higher than a year ago in Niger. Rains are not expected until June and prices are expected to increase until the next harvest in September without a substantial aid effort.
Pastoralists are especially vulnerable as they depend on animals for their food and income.
“With not enough fodder, herders are desperate to sell their animals, driving livestock prices lower and lower,” explains Hassane Baka, a representative of Oxfam’s partner AREN in Niger. “This means that for each animal sold on the market, pastoralists get less cereal with which to feed their families.”
Oxfam called on donors to respond to the government of Niger’s request for international humanitarian assistance. While the authorities have some food reserves, these are currently not sufficient. Up to $123 million was requested to fund the national response plan. The agency also called on donors to address increasing needs in Chad and Mali.
Oxfam also called on all countries in the region to keep their borders open. In 2005, the situation was made worse when neighboring countries closed their borders with Niger. This limited the availability of food and increased inflation. The agency also stressed the need for good coordination between governments, UN agencies, and local and international NGOs to ensure efficient aid delivery.
Oxfam, along with national and local partner organisations, have started emergency work in the most vulnerable regions in Niger, especially in the Maradi, Tahoua, Tillabéry and Zinder regions. They are distributing food and supplies to the poorest households and schoolchildren, protecting livestock and buying weak livestock from herders at above market levels.
Particularly important in the current crisis is the early warning system developed by Oxfam’s partners in Niger and broadcasted on rural radio networks. This gives cattle herders the information they need to act quickly.
In Chad, Oxfam is helping people in the Sila and Ouaddaï regions by distributing food and running agricultural and livestock support projects and will be sending assessment teams to the affected areas. In Mali, the agency will be distributing food and animal feed to 100,000 people.
The agency has worked in the Sahel region for decades, developing sustainable solutions to tackle the root causes of food shortages such as creating cereal and fodder banks, promoting income diversification as well as education and literacy.