10 December 2013

West Africa: 16 Million Risk Hunger in Sahel Despite Good Harvest

Around 16 million people are at risk of going hungry across Africa's Sahel belt next year due to conflicts and rapid population growth, even though the region expects good harvests and rainfall, a senior U.N. official said on Tuesday.

Violence in northern Nigeria, northern Mali and the Central African Republic combined with high fertility rates have fueled food shortages and high food prices across the savannah region.

In Niger alone, the fertility rate is 7.6 children per mother.

Despite the need, a global downturn and the prominence of wars such as in Syria make it harder to raise donor funds for crises like the one in the Sahel, said Robert Piper of the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA).

Latest OCHA figures show that only 58 percent of the required $1.7 billion for 2013 has been met by donor funding, Piper told Reuters before the launch of a funding appeal.

Food insecurity in the Sahel next year will increase by 40 percent compared to this year when 11.3 million people had inadequate food and required around $1.7 billion in donor assistance, according to preliminary OCHA data.

"These are the first indicators that the Sahel crisis is getting away from us," said Robert Piper, OCHA coordinator for the Sahel.

"The numbers are getting bigger even though the harvest this year has been fractionally better than the average over the last five years."

"Rapid population growth has meant the same amount of food has to feed more mouths. So despite a small increase in overall food production, on average there is 13 percent less food per person," Piper explained.

Of the estimated 16 million at risk of hunger in the Sahel, approximately 2 million have already crossed the emergency threshold and need immediate food assistance, said Piper, who added food security numbers can fluctuate season to season.

Nigeria and Senegal recorded the biggest jump in food insecurity numbers, reporting an increase from 44,000 to 2.4 million and 700,000 to 2.2 million, respectively, said Piper.

"Food insecurity in Nigeria is partly to do with the conflict in the north, which has been exacerbated since the government called the state of emergency in May," he said.

President Jonathan Goodluck's military intervention against the Islamist sect Boko Haram this year has left hundreds dead and around 10,000 refugees have fled into Niger and Cameroon.

"However, we need to better understand what went wrong in Senegal. Uneven rainfall patterns, high prices and a poor harvest are part of the explanation. But high food insecurity in the Casamance suggests that the conflict might still impacting," said Piper.

Better data collection in inaccessible places, such as parts of northern Nigeria, may also play a role in revealing the scale of the problem, said Grant Leaity, regional emergency response coordinator at the U.N. Children's Agency.

"As the data collection improves due to better access and standardised methods across the nine Sahel countries, the full scale of the crisis is gradually dawning on humanitarian actors working in the region," said Leaity.

Piper said that humanitarians could no longer just blame the weather for food insecurity in the Sahel, which has been devastated by cyclical droughts over the last decade.

"We've always assumed that if the weather falls into place, then farmers will grow just enough to survive or pastoralists will raise just enough animals to get by without a crisis," said Piper.

"This generation are more vulnerable to the prices in the market, influenced partly by internal conflict and structural deficits in the region, than they are to the weather," he said.

This story was corrected after clarification from OCHA in paragraph 7 to say "13 percent" and paragraph 9 to say "2.2 million".

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