Several UN agencies and NGOs are calling for a greater mobilization of aid workers and funding in the West African Sahel to meet the needs of a population facing one of the worst nutrition crises in recent years.
Over 10 million people are at risk of hunger in the Sahel before the September harvests, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization’s (FAO). In Niger, about half of the 13.4 million inhabitants are facing hunger. Up to two million Chadians and hundreds of thousands of Mauritanians and Malians also need assistance.
There have been early interventions and prepositioning, but more should have been done earlier, say aid workers and the response needs to be urgently scaled up.
In late 2009, the Famine Early Warning System Network highlighted signs of the crisis: a drop in cereal production, poor pastoral conditions and a dangerous combination of poverty and high food prices.
“There are always delays in supply pipelines. This means that decisions taken today will have an impact on the ground in late July or August. Food distributions should have started in April or May,” said the Swiss operation director of Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF), Bruno Jochum.
Support remains crucial, he added, since during the months of August and September, people are typically left with no food while they wait for the next harvest.
Only 57 percent of the US$190 million emergency appeal by the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) for Niger is funded. In Chad, the World Food Programme (WFP) still lacks $23 million of the $65 million required for the food crisis.
The head of the European Commission Humanitarian Aid Office (ECHO) for West Africa, Cyprien Fabre, noted, however, that the donor response is timelier than in 2005, when the food crisis caught many unprepared. This time, he said, early warning and response mechanisms were in place in most affected countries and funds were rapidly allocated.
“Operations are well under way in Niger, Burkina Faso and Mali. In Chad, more actors are needed to respond properly. Funding will be available, if necessary.”
The situation in the Sahelian belt of Chad is especially worrying. “Chad is somehow like Niger in 2005,” explained the UN Children's Fund (UNICEF) regional adviser for nutrition, Félicité Tchibindat. “The number of organizations on the ground is limited, so is the political will. On the bright side, humanitarian agencies and donors are now starting to respond.”
Such mobilization will help, but the imminent start of the rainy season will make the tricky task of bringing assistance to remote villages in a landlocked country even more challenging. WFP indicates that it can take as long as 3-5 months for food to arrive in Chad. In parts of the country, roads will be officially closed as of the end of June because of the rains.
“Even if there are cargos and cargos of stocks, if they cannot be delivered, people will not get food. Without prepositioned food, it will become very difficult. Agencies may have to look into air deliveries,” said OCHA’s public information, advocacy and donor relations officer for West Africa, Yvon A. Edoumou.
If there are normal harvests in the autumn, the population is expected to recover at the end of the year. A normal to wet rainy season is forecast by the Permanent Inter-State Committee for Drought Control in the Sahel (CILSS).
Precipitation is crucial in a region where most agriculture is rain-fed. “If the rains fail, it will be a catastrophe in the whole region. People’s assets are significantly depleted. They have borrowed money to eat and are now waiting for the rains,” said ECHO’s Fabre.
The Sahel countries are among the poorest in the world. A third of the population of Chad and Niger is chronically undernourished. Each year, 300,000 under-five children die of malnutrition, according to UNICEF.
“The population is already very vulnerable,” said OCHA’s Edoumou. “When you live from one day to the next, any shock provokes a crisis. If the rains are poor, if the cattle are affected by a mysterious disease, people are in difficulty.”
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