Yaounde — Last month, Mary Ndong cut the number of meals she prepares for her family. Instead of eating three times daily, she, her husband and their three children now eat just one meal a day.
Prices of basic foodstuff have "more than doubled," explained Ndong, a secondary school teacher in Yaounde, Cameroon's capital.
Ndong says that her salary has been insufficient ever since the government slashed it by 60 percent during an economic crisis in the early 1990s. But now, with rising food prices, her financial situation is much worse.
"We are going through hell," she said.
Like her, many residents of Yaounde and Douala are struggling to cope with a sudden rise in food prices over the past three months, believed to have been triggered by recent climate instability.
The situation is evoking memories of 2008, when a sharp increase in food prices caused riots in the cities of Yaounde and Douala, leaving more than 100 dead according to the government.
The shortage of food has been compounded by prolonged water scarcity that has put many local farmers in peril. Experts say severe drought triggered by a long absence of rain has cut projected yields of crops like cassava, plantain, cocoyam, maize and rice.
"The climate around Yaounde and Douala, the two most populated cities in Cameroon, has been very unstable in the last three years, making it very difficult for farmers to plan for their planting," said Michael Andong, an agriculture technician with the Ministry of Agriculture in Yaounde.
"Many farmers erroneously plant after signs of unusual early rains in February that disappear sooner ... leaving the crops to dry up. This climate abnormality has really affected food crop production, causing scarcity and an increase in prices," Andong said.
Azong Mark, a farmer in Yaounde, said his maize production has dropped from 40 tonnes a year in 2010 to just 12 tonnes in 2013, which is "making it difficult for me to cope with the reduced family income."
The prices of staple foods such as rice, plantain, flour and cocoyam have soared by over 20 percent in the last three months, while vegetables and fruit that consume a lot of water now cost more than double what they used to, according to a recent market price update by the Cameroon Consumers Association.
The president of the association, Magellan Kangain, says the population is being forced to eat more cheaply to cope with the rising prices.
"When food prices rise, families are condemned to eat cheaper, less nutritious food, which can have catastrophic lifelong effects on the social, physical, and mental wellbeing of millions of Cameroonians," Kangain said.
He said the Cameroon Consumers Association is advising the government on policies, such as increased investment in agriculture and related sectors, and on risk management, and is working with private volunteer groups to help governments in the country make more informed responses to global food price spikes.
"In the short term, measures such as subsidising school feeding programmes and food-for-work programmes can help to ease pressure on the poor. In the medium to long term, Cameroon needs strong and stable policies and sustained investments in agriculture like most poor countries in Africa," Kangain added.
POLICY NOT WORKING?
Mindful of the rioting that followed the 2008 spike in food prices, Cameroon's President Paul Biya in 2011 created an Agency for the Regulation of Supplies of Basic Consumption Goods.
The agency was expected to import and stock major food items for sale at pre-approved prices, trade minister Luc Magloire Mbarga Atangana announced at its creation.
The goal was "to ensure prices do not go beyond the reach of the average Cameroonian," he said.
But the structure has not lived up to expectations as food prices continue to rise. The ministry of trade has organised occasional markets selling food at what it claims are lower prices, but these have been poorly advertised and few people have been able to take advantage of them.
"Cameroon is a free economy where the market forces dictate, so an agency to regulate prices has functional difficulties. In Cameroon, government creates structures without providing the means (for them) to function and so they die even before their takeoff," said Benard Njonga, president of the Citizens Association for the Defence of Collective Interests (ACDIC), a local nongovernmental organisation.
Albert Sasson, a researcher and former UNESCO official, wrote in a 2012 article published in Agriculture and Food Security, an online journal, that "climate change and weather vagaries, present and forecast, are generally compounding food insecurity and drastically changing farming activities."
URBAN ACCESS TO WATER
Cameroon is making efforts to address its water shortages. In January the government signed a 90 million euro ($121 million) loan agreement with the French Agency for Development (AFD) to help improve water supply in four cities - Yaounde, Bertoua, Edea and Ngaoundere.
Government statistics indicate that only about 30 percent of Cameroon's 20 million inhabitants have access to piped drinking water.
According to Gilbert Tsimi Evouna, a government delegate to the Yaounde city council, the capital's more than 3 million residents require a daily water supply of over 300,000 cubic metres (about 80 million US gallons). This is three times greater than current capacity, according to the state water company, Camerounaise Des Eaux.
"As demographic pressure increases and climate change affects the availability of resources, access to drinking water is more than ever before a major challenge, both worldwide and in Cameroon," said Christine Robichon, France's ambassador to Cameroon, at the ceremony for the signing of the AFD loan. "Easy access to this vital resource has direct effects upon health and upon social and economic life."
Elias Ntungwe Ngalame is an environmental writer with Cameroon's Eden Group of newspapers.