5 October 2012

Mauritania: Drought Sends Food Prices Soaring

Photo: Neil Palmer/CIAT
A livestock carcass.

In some countries across the Sahel the end of the lean season heralded a period of steady rainfall.  Not so in Mauritania, where households are still struggling to cope with the effects of the drought, which has reduced farmers' crop yield and increased the price of food on local markets.

Across the scrubland of the Gorgol region in southern Mauritania the effects of the drought are alarmingly visible. Carcasses of dead livestock are scattered throughout the landscape.

"This village used to have 120 families but 30 or 40 have now fled to escape the effects of the drought," said Toutou Mint Yahya, pointing to a group of huts in the distance. "You can see that most houses are now empty."

Toutou Mint Yahya is one of an estimated million Mauritanians suffering from the effects of a food security crisis currently affecting Mauritania due to significant reductions in the 2011 rainy season.

"This has been the worst year in a very long time. There has been no rain and the animals have nothing to eat," said Toutou Mint Yahya. "Five of my cattle risk dying in the coming days. The government has given us wheat and we have used part of it to keep our livestock alive, but the wheat is now finished and the animals are starving."

The lack of rainfall has led to a decrease in the availability of grazing areas and water sources for animals. Agricultural production has dropped, resulting in a scarcity of food sold on local markets. Limited rainfall is exacerbating an already tenuous food security situation.

Since 2011, the price of food commodities in Mauritania has increased significantly. "Life is much more expensive this year. Last year a kilo of sugar cost 200 ouguiya. Now it costs 350 ouguiya," said Fatima Mint Bilal. "A kilo of dried meat now costs 2 500 ouguiya instead of 800 ouguiya. The same applies for milk, wheat and oil."

The combination of high food prices and prolonged drought are eroding the purchasing power of affected households and increasing their vulnerability to food insecurity.

Food available, but at a high price

To help mitigate and recover from the effects of the drought, the World Food Programme and its partners are implementing a cash transfer program to assist the most vulnerable communities. Under the program, cash transfers are made on a monthly basis to 75,000 people across the rural regions of Assaba, Brakna, Gorgol and Guidhimakha.

"Households are selected on the basis of their poverty level and vulnerability to the drought," explained Youssouf Tamboura, coordinator of AMSELA, a local NGO and implementing partner of WFP. "Village members themselves are partly responsible for identifying the most destitute families to participate in the program."

The cash transfer program enables households to purchase food that is available on local markets. This not only improves the food security of participating households, but also provides a stimulus to the local economy and in particular to the farmers selling their produce.

"Distributing small handouts of money each month is a way of ensuring that this assistance is used for food," said Youssouf Tamboura. "It is intended to be just enough to provide relief to the family."

"The cash has given me hope"

Oumoukelthoum Mint Mbara is a young woman from the village of Hel Nouh. Sitting in the shade with her newborn child she explains that her husband has left the region in search for a job. Without her WFP cash transfer, she would not have known how to continue feeding her family, as her husband does not always manage to send money back to the family and she has no other source of income.

Guru Demba is also a recipient of the WFP cash transfer program. "The cash has given me hope and allowed me to buy food and unblock a situation that was becoming unsustainable," said Guru Demba. Cash transfers are just one activity of WFP that aims to counter the effects of the drought on vulnerable communities.

WFP is also supplying over 1,000 village cereal banks with 5,500 metric tons of wheat. Cereal banks in Mauritania are improving food access to over 150,000 people by ensuring availability of cereals in remote rural area and providing wheat at subsidized prices.

Meanwhile nutrition programmes to prevent and treat moderate acute malnutrition are being implemented for almost 60,000 children and pregnant and nursing women. WFP's activities aim to create national safety nets to help vulnerable communities cope and then quickly recover from the effects of the drought.

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