Food crisis in the Sahel threatens famine

Drought has wreaked havoc with the harvests and food stocks in the Sahel region are exhausted Keystone

This summer, nearly 15 million people are likely to be hit by the food crisis currently spreading across the Sahel regions of Africa.

This content was published on April 20, 2012 minutes

But Fred Lauener of Swiss non-governmental organisation Caritas remains optimistic that there is still time to act and avoid making the same mistakes that occurred in the Horn of Africa.

Persistent drought has meant food stocks were exhausted by the beginning of March, with the next harvest not due until September at the earliest. The predictable catastrophe is playing out amidst “general indifference” according to the World Health Organization, the United Nations Human Rights Council and Unicef. To date, the international community has committed just half of the $700 million (SFr535 million) in aid appealed for in December.

Across Burkina Faso, Mali, Mauritania, Nigeria and Chad, around 10 to 15 per cent of the population is already suffering from malnutrition. According to the WHO, between one and 1.5 million children under the age of five suffer from severe malnutrition.

Climate is not the only cause. The high prices of foodstuffs and the massive return of migrants unable to find work in the Maghreb have driven increasing poverty and a shortage of subsistence means. Add to that the multiplication of regional conflicts, which have served to increase the number of displaced people and further aggravate the situation. It’s the third time in ten years that the Sahel is confronted with a food crisis. How is the situation different this time?

Fred Lauener: It’s true that this region is regularly hit by drought and food difficulties. But this time there is also a very large increase in food prices which is due to a chronic shortage, but also to speculation on agricultural raw materials. Last year’s harvests were very bad, causing losses of up to 90 per cent in most of the Sahel regions. With the little money they have left, the people can no longer afford to buy enough to feed themselves. The situation in the Sahel has never been this bad. You were recently in Mali. What did you observe on the ground?

F.L.: At this time of the year, the earth is brown and the people are used to making do with only a little food. But the first signs of the famine to come were already apparent a month ago. The situation is getting worse every day. Families are forced to eat seed to survive and by doing so put the next harvest in danger. That’s why the emergency is as bad as it is. The Sahel is faced with growing insecurity to the point that many specialists consider it a time bomb. A Swiss woman was kidnapped in Mali on Sunday. Will questions of security complicate humanitarian operations?

F.L.: Access for us to the north of Mali, where the situation is very uncertain, is impossible. In the rest of the country, which is equally affected by the drought, we are able to work freely. The military coup has not changed anything. In Chad, where Caritas is also active, we have not been confronted by political or military obstacles either.

However it’s obvious that the chaotic situation in the region makes the delivery of aid more difficult. Almost 200,000 people have fled the fighting in the north of Mali. These refugees are going to regions which are equally affected by food shortages and represent an added burden for the local population. It just aggravates the situation. East Africa last year, West Africa this year. Do donors not get tired of these continual food crises?

F.L.: When the international community mobilised for the Horn of Africa last spring, famine had already been affecting the region for nearly two years. So it was possible to photograph and film people dying of starvation. There was a story for the media to tell, which was then able to influence public opinion. But the intervention occurred too late. In the case of the Sahel, we still have the possibility of intervening in time and thus avoid having to fight against an already entrenched famine. Concretely, what can Swiss aid organisations, which by definition have limited resources, do in the face of such an enormous challenge?

F.L.: Caritas has established a programme in Mali known as “work for food”. The beneficiaries undertake public works in return for a salary paid in the form of food. Families who have a little bit of money are offered the possibility of purchasing food at heavily reduced prices. We also distribute seed and support out-of-season agriculture – that’s to say during the period between the two main harvests – by planting tubers such as potatoes and onions. Wouldn’t it be better to put in place strategies to fight malnutrition over the long term instead of always responding to emergency situations?

F.L.: Certainly in the future we should be working less on crises and more on risk prevention. The climate is changing, and we know that there will be more droughts and floods in the future. Prevention and risk reduction is taking on more and more importance in the area of humanitarian aid. This aspect is sometimes still a little neglected today, but Caritas has attached a particular importance to it. In Mali for example, we have put in place an alert system so that farmers can be informed sufficiently early of the next prolonged drought and can better plan the management of their food stocks. Tourism was sometimes the only economic activity in the less populated areas of the Sahel. How will these populations survive without revenues from this activity?

F.L.: Tourism in Mali, which represented a very important pillar of the economy, is gone. Foreign visitors refuse to go there, hotels are empty, taxi and bus drivers are twiddling their thumbs. Mali was nevertheless an exemplary democracy in the region and experienced strong economic growth in recent years. A number of investments were made in tourism infrastructure. It is tragic that the country has reached this point.

Swiss mobilisation

Swiss Solidarity, the organisation for collecting funds of the Swiss Broadcasting Corporation, has opened a new account to benefit victims of the drought in the Sahel.

The organisation and its Swiss aid partners – ADRA, Caritas, the Swiss Red Cross, Swiss Interchurch Aid, Helvetas, Terre des Hommes, Solidar Suisse and Swissaid – have already begun delivering emergency aid to Mali, Mauritania, Burkina Faso, Nigeria and Chad.

The aid is given in the form of food distributed to people and livestock, water and land protection programmes as well as projects to distribute seed for the next rainy season.

Donations for the Sahel can be sent to the postal account 10-15000-6 Sahel or made by internet.

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Fred Lauener

Journalist, writer and presenter Fred Lauener has a degree in intercultural communication. He has led several projects and campaigns in Switzerland and abroad.

He is a member of the Swiss humanitarian aid corps and of Swiss Rescue. He is also part of the pool of Swiss civil experts for the promotion of peace under the auspices of the foreign ministry.

He collaborates both with non-governmental and governmental organisations and often works abroad coordinating aid efforts in cases of natural disaster or conflict.

Lauener is married and lives between Mendrisio (Ticino) and Basel.

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