The spectre of hunger is again stalking the people of the western Sahel, at the southern edge of the Sahara Desert. Thanks to the early-warning systems funded by Canada and other donors, we now know that a major food crisis is brewing. We know in time to head it off.
Late and irregular rainfall, followed by plagues of birds, locusts and other pests have decimated the harvests of poor farmers and made pasture scarce for herders. Cereal production in the five countries of the region is down by a quarter from last year and is well below the five-year average. In Mauritania and Chad farmers harvested barely half what they got last year. National food reserves exist, but they hold nowhere near the quantity needed to mitigate the deficit.
Even if the market were well stocked, the prices of key cereals are 10 to 40 per cent higher than usual. Most people in the Sahel buy their food, and the most vulnerable families spend up to 80 per cent of their income on it. As if failed harvests and skyrocketing prices weren’t enough, remittances from family members working in Libya and Côte d’Ivoire have evaporated due to the conflicts in those countries.
The Sahel is an ecologically fragile region prone to shocks. Even in a “normal” year, half of all children under five suffer chronic malnutrition. Rates of acute malnutrition among children are consistently above the 10 per cent threshold that for UNICEF defines an emergency. Years with no “crisis” still see 300,000 children die from malnutrition-related causes.
The worst months are May to September, just before the harvest, when family and village food stocks are at their lowest and food prices are at their highest. The need for food is also keenest then, because people have to have energy to work in the fields. These same months are when pastureland is reduced, water sources dry up, and herds are forced to travel farther for fodder.
This year, because of the poor harvest, the lean season is expected to begin two to four months early. For herders it could start as soon as February and for agricultural communities in April. In parts of Mauritania where food stocks are heavily depleted it could happen sooner.
People do have ways of coping, starting with eating even less and selling off their animals and other assets. But they have long-term consequences. It takes at least three years to rebuild a small stock of sheep and goats, and up to ten years to rebuild cattle stocks. Malnutrition not only poses immediate risks for the lives of the children affected, but also has major educational, developmental and health impacts on those that survive.
A year ago, at the eastern end of the continent in Kenya, Ethiopia and Somalia, the early-warning system also gave plenty of notice. We knew in January that a crisis was brewing. Yet, as Oxfam and Save the Children write in a new report, donors failed to act until large numbers of people began to die in July.
Should the same prove true this year, the consequences could be staggering. Projections suggest some 12 million people may be affected in Niger, Mali, Burkina Faso, Mauritania and Chad.
But the Sahel is not condemned to suffer Somalia’s fate. The region’s governments have acknowledged the depth of the coming crisis. Several have already mobilized the meagre resources they have on hand and asked for outside help. Donors are starting to engage, with Europe leading the way.
Early recognition provides us with an opportunity to avoid the mistakes of the past. Acting now could avoid a costly escalation that would put millions of people at risk of losing their livelihoods or losing their lives.
We are warned now about the impending tragedy in the Sahel. But will we act?