Louga/Dakar — The number of food insecure in the Sahel is expected to grow to more than 20 million in 2014, mainly due to an increase in cases in northern Nigeria, northern Cameroon and Senegal. IRIN went to Louga, in northern Senegal, to find out why the number of hungry is so high.
"Nothing was harvested this year in the fields. Nothing at all," said Ndjouga Ndianye, a farmer from Diama Nguene, a village about 15km outside Louga, which is 70km southeast of Saint Louis. "In the fields, apart from peanut scraps, there was nothing. Absolutely nothing."
While the number of food insecure in Senegal is not much higher than in 2011, the year of a major drought crisis, many farmers in the north told IRIN the situation is worse now than ever before.
Rains were poor - in some cases nonexistent - in 2011, decent in 2012 and poor again in 2013, say farmers in Louga. As a result, even though families built up some stocks in 2012, they were starting this year at a deficit, and many of them were in deeply debt, making them highly vulnerable when 2013's rains came late and ended early.
This dynamic, combined with improved food security surveys that are identifying previously invisible groups of food-insecure people, has caused the number of those classified as hungry to shoot up in Senegal.
"The situation is very difficult," said 30-year-old Fatou Ndiaye, a farmer in the Louga Region. "I have [four] young children and, every day, my children say to me, 'Mama, I'm hungry.' But what can I do?" she asks. "There were no harvests, so we have no sacks [of rice] this year. It's true that every year is difficult, but this is the worst. I'm very worried what we will eat in the coming months."
According to WFP food security assessments undertaken between June and December 2013, countrywide, 20 percent of the population, or 2.5 million people are estimated to be food insecure this year, among which 5 percent, or around 675,000 people will be severely food insecure.
Across the Sahel, as of January, more than 2.5 million people were already facing crisis conditions, the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) reports.
In Louga, some 33,000 residents are severely food insecure, a markedly higher number than last year, said Ingeborg Breuer, WFP head in Senegal. The harvest was 11 percent below average. "It's quite concerning when you look at the statistics compared to last year. You clearly have a deterioration of food security in Louga."
When they did come to Louga, the rains were intermittent. Insect infestations were also worse in 2013.
"There have always been bad years every so often, but this year is really the worst," said Malo Niang, a farmer from Thiedy Village in Louga. "Normally, I harvest tons' worth of peanuts and millet, but this year it was just a few sacks' worth."
According to Ibrahima Laye Thiome, the Disaster Management Coordinator for the Senegalese Red Cross, surveys show crop yields may last only as long as mid-March, meaning an early start to the annual lean season. Many of these same families are still trying to recover from previous food crises. "So the perspectives for this year are really quite worrying," Breuer said.
Malnutrition set to spike
Children, too, are likely to feel the effects of the poor harvest in the coming months.
OCHA estimates that across the Sahel, five million children under the age of five will suffer from malnutrition this year, and that 1.5 million of them will suffer severe acute malnutrition. This figure remains largely unchanged from 2013, when malnutrition surveying significantly improved, and was a jump from 2012 when one million children were estimated to be severely malnourished.
Boubacar Camara, a nurse at one of the regional health clinics in Louga, said around 3 percent of the children they treat are currently moderately malnourished. This number is likely to rise in the coming months.
"There hasn't been a sharp increase in the number of malnutrition cases yet," he said. "But I fear it is coming soon because of last year's poor harvests."
Families say they have been traveling to markets up to 10km away to buy rice or millet, but for many, money is beginning to run out. Those who can are taking on extra work in towns and cities - making bricks, building houses, working on others' farms.
"Our problem is now, how do we eat?" said Fati Fall, a mother of four in the Louga Region. "Some people are taking out loans to buy food. We've been looking for straw to sell at the market to earn some money as well. But it is not easy. Other people sell animals or meat, but even that is difficult," she said.
People are not the only ones suffering. The animals, Louga residents say, are also in trouble. Insufficient rains have meant less fodder for animals to graze on.
"My animals are getting thin," said Boubou Diallo, who has a herd of about 70 cattle and sheep. "There is nothing for them to eat, and so they are getting weak. And because of that, their market price goes down. So I am earning less money and spending more trying to care for them. It is not easy. How will I buy food for my family if I have no profits this year?" he said.
Aid plans underway
To help ease the burdens of food-insecure households, many humanitarian and development agencies say they will continue to provide aid to the Louga Region this year.
WFP plans to distribute basic food and cash vouchers over the coming months. The agency will also continue with school-feeding programmes reaching about 5,000 children, and will provide nutrition support to 13,000 under-fives.
The key is to get this response going as soon as possible, said Breuer. "If you don't kick in at the beginning of the lean season, the population will already start with negative coping strategies," she said. "They will deplete their assets. Many will migrate to cities. So we really need to reach people before they start to adopting such negative coping strategies."
Families also need help rehabilitating their depleted soil and improving seed and fertilizer quality so they can grow more food, said experts.
The Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) has pledged to provide farmers throughout the region with agricultural inputs, such as quality seeds, fertilizer and gardening tools. They are also working with the government and local partners to improve small-scale irrigation systems, conserve rainwater and rehabilitate degraded land.
To help livestock populations, FAO says it is providing animal feed and veterinary medicines to pastoralists throughout the country.
Other organizations, such as the Senegalese Red Cross, say they would like to intervene as well, but must wait for the government to recognize the food situation in Louga as a crisis.
Louga residents say they hope the help comes before it is too late.
"Right now, we are just trying to survive," said Touba Dia. "Everything we do is to make sure we can eat. At the moment, our meals aren't great, but they are enough to live on. But in a few months - that is what worries me," she said. "How will we find food? I just don't know."
[This report does not necessarily reflect the views of the United Nations.]