23 February 2012

West Africa: U.S., U.N. Agencies Respond to Potential Food Crisis in Sahel

Photo: ICRC/I. Djadi
Refugees from Mali live in makeshift shelters near the village of Chinagodrar, Tillabery region, Niger.

Washington — The U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), the European Union (EU) and U.N. agencies are mounting a humanitarian response to an emerging food security crisis that is reaching regions of eight African nations and touching the lives of millions.

USAID Assistant Administrator Nancy Lindborg met February 15 with representatives from the EU and the United Nations, and committed the United States to another $33 million in humanitarian funding in the coming weeks to meet food needs across the region and provide critical support to those who face malnutrition in the weeks and months ahead.

"Due to erratic rainfall and failed harvests, high food prices and rising conflict," wrote Lindborg in an entry on a USAID blog, "more than 7 million people across the Sahel region of western Africa are at risk of plunging into crisis when the lean season begins this spring."

The February 15 meeting, held in Rome, ended with a call for rapid delivery of humanitarian and development assistance in the Sahel, a geographic region of semi-arid lands on the southern edge of the Sahara Desert, forming a belt of territory across parts of Senegal, Mauritania, Mali, Burkina Faso, Niger, Nigeria, Chad and Cameroon. According to projections from the U.N.'s Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, a potential food crisis could touch local populations in all those nations.

"Even in the best years, it is difficult to eke a living out of the harsh sands of the Western Sahara," wrote Mark Bartolini, director of USAID's Office of U.S. Foreign Disaster Assistance, in the USAID blog. The arid lands don't yield a crop easily, and regular seasonal dryness frequently can make a hard life even harder. Severe drought became a regular visitor to the Sahel in the 1960s, and the environmental change in the region was an impetus for the U.N. Convention on Combating Desertification and Drought, which was adopted and entered into force in the 1990s.

The likelihood of forthcoming food insecurity in the region is based on forecasts and analysis from the Famine Early Warning Systems Network (FEWS NET), an international research collaboration. Funded by USAID, FEWS NET works to monitor famine-prone areas of the world in hopes of preventing humanitarian disaster through early warning.

In a report offering a January to September 2012 forecast, FEWS NET predicted that the most severe food insecurity problem could occur in southern Mauritania in the first quarter of the year. Moving into April and the Northern Hemisphere summer, FEWS NET projects that food insecurity could reach crisis levels in regions of Mali, Burkina Faso, Niger and Chad.

On the positive side, FEWS NET also reported that the governments of Mali and Mauritania have seen the dangers ahead and are taking steps to help people cope with a lack of access to food. The report points out that the overall availability of food through the region is not likely to be a problem, but the insecurity stems from the fact that many households won't have the income to buy food in the markets.

Areas of the Sahel can face an acute malnutrition level of up to 15 percent, and that figure will likely go higher without delivery of targeted assistance, according to FEWS NET.

The accuracy of FEWS NET reporting was a key factor that focused international attention on the food crisis that developed in the Horn of Africa in mid-2011. With the FEWS NET projections, the international humanitarian community was able to preposition supplies to ease the hardships.

USAID programs are helping more than 2.5 million people in the region with food, water, health and nutritional services, and the most recent pledge will bring U.S. investments in the Sahel to $270 million for 2011 and 2012. The United States is the largest donor of food to food-insecure nations in the world.

Feed the Future, a three-year-old Obama administration initiative, is working to help develop food production capacity in developing countries so that they can create greater food security on their own without need for periodic emergency food assistance.

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