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West Africa: Millions of people at risk of serious food crisis without early action, says Oxfam

By Oxfam

Millions of people in West Africa could be protected from a serious food crisis if preparations are scaled up across West Africa, international humanitarian organization Oxfam said today. With early indicators pointing to a likely food crisis in 2012, with people at particularly high risk in Mauritania, Niger, Burkina Faso, Mali and Chad, now is the time to invest in preventative measures.

Governments across the region, who have already recognised the seriousness of the coming crisis, should scale up efforts to make sure people have money to buy food, receive animal feed for their livestock and emergency food is stocked and ready to be distributed.

Mamadou Biteye, Oxfam Humanitarian Lead in West Africa, said:

"The situation is looking extremely worrying for millions of people in West Africa, but the worst is not yet inevitable. The crisis has been identified early, and we know that there are cost-effective measures that can be taken now to protect those most vulnerable. This time we can act before the emergency hits."

Early warning systems have identified a range of factors that are contributing to the coming crisis. Low rainfall and water levels, poor harvests and lack of pasture, high food prices and a drop in remittances from migrants are all causing serious problems.

According to national early warning systems, cereal production is down compared to the five year average, with Mauritania and Chad showing deficits of over 50 percent compared to last year. National food reserves are dangerously low, while prices of some key cereals are up to 40 percent higher than the five year average.

While evaluations are still ongoing to identify those at most risk, early reports suggest six million people in Niger and 2.9 million people in Mali live in areas vulnerable to the coming crisis, while in Mauritania 700,000 people – over one quarter of the population – are reported as at risk of severe food insecurity. In Burkina Faso, official estimates are to be released soon but are likely to include over two million people at risk of being directly affected. In Chad, 13 out of 22 regions could be affected by food insecurity.

The Sahel region of West Africa last experienced a major food crisis in 2010, which affected ten million people.

Biteye added: "People are still recovering from the last crisis in 2010 and are incredibly vulnerable to any extra shocks such as rising food prices, poor harvests or the death of their animals. These people need help now to build their resilience before next year. Acting early could make a huge difference.”   

Oxfam is gearing up its work to address immediately the needs of the most vulnerable people. The agency is working in some of the affected areas helping communities to increase their resilience to the coming crisis and getting ready to provide food assistance.
For example, in the Gorgol region of Mauritania, 1,300 women, as part of cooperatives, are benefiting from irrigation systems which pump water from the river for their vegetable gardens. In Burkina Faso, Oxfam has already started a response, with the support of ECHO, to help 50,000 people access food.

Whilst an early response to the coming crisis is crucial to protect people in 2012, Oxfam also warned that preventing future crises would require action to address the root causes and provide longer-term support for the poorest people in a region where 300,000 children die from malnutrition-related diseases in a ‘non-crisis’ year.

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