18 February 2013

West Africa: The Sahel Crisis - One Year On

The international response to last year's drought in the Sahel region of West Africa averted a humanitarian catastrophe. While the outlook for the Sahel remains severe, programmes helping communities to better cope with droughts in the future are beginning to bear fruit, a crucial step on the way towards long-term food security.

One year ago, levels of malnutrition and hunger were rising in the Sahel region of West Africa, due to a devastating drought. Video: 4 Questions About Last Year's Hunger Crisis In The Sahel

It was the third drought in less than a decade, so families and communities were already weak. They had few resources to draw on to face the coming hunger crisis.

Two-pronged response

1. Immediate food assistance

'Blanket' feeding in Niger delivered food to all young children and nursing mothers in hard-hit areas. Photo gallery

Special nutritional products such as 'Plumpy Sup' were used to protect young children from malnutrition. Watch video

2. Build resilience

In Burkina Faso, villagers received food from WFP to support them as they worked to prevent soil erosion and desertification.Photo gallery

In Chad, 'cash-for-work' programmes supported families as they worked to make their villages more food secure.Watch video

To anyone watching, it was clear that a catastrophe was in the making and a concerted effort was needed to protect the lives of poor people living in a vast region stretching from Mauritania on the Atlantic to the eastern border of Chad.

Emergency meeting

An emergency meeting was called at WFP in Rome. It was attended by leaders of UN agencies, governments from affected countries and major donors.

They came up with an action plan aimed at doing two things: 1) ensuring the most vulnerable people had food and nutrition to get through the crisis; 2) helping drought-prone communities become more resilient to similar shocks in the future.

Following the meeting, a large-scale response was launched, providing US$ 1.2 billion worth of assistance to 8 million people in the Sahel throughout 2012 (see box). A humanitarian catastrophe was averted and, one year on, the big picture is better. The harvest season has just begun and crop prospects are mostly favourable.

But the situation in the Sahel remains serious. In 2013, WFP emergency operations aim to support 5.5 million people who are still feeling the effects of the drought in some way. Altogether, including other activities aimed at making poor families more food secure, a total of 9 million people in the Sahel will be receiving WFP food assistance.

Building resilience

Work has also begun to build resilience in areas where drought is recurrent (see box). But more needs to be done because the risk of future shocks is still high. This is due to a combination of poverty and undernourishment, extreme weather, environmental degradation, low investment in agriculture, and vulnerability to market volatility.

On Feb 20, the same leaders who met a year ago in Rome will be back at WFP to gauge the situation one year on. They will look at what was achieved and discuss how to continue strengthening resilience to break the cycle of crises.

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