The crisis in the Central African Republic (CAR) is devastating the economy and people's ability to secure basic necessities, says a new joint United Nations assessment, which warns that as the violence continues and the rains set in, providing the type of broad action needed to halt the country's downward spiral is becoming more difficult and expensive "with every passing day."
The UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) and the World Food Programme (WFP) warn that the country needs a "long and expensive" humanitarian operation over at least the next 18 months to stem the growing toll, and pave the way to rebuild livelihoods.
The two UN agencies issued the report as they took action to help displaced and other conflict-affected families gain immediate access to food and cash, while also preparing for a crucial planting season, which will help families produce food and income for the long term.
The joint assessment states that widespread conflict since December 2012 has caused the destruction of livelihoods as well as the loss of food and cash crops, livestock and crucial productive assets across the country.
As a result, about 1.6 million people directly affected by the crisis are in need of urgent food, more than double the level estimated just over a year ago, in February 2013. Also, as of late March, over 600,000 individuals were displaced due to conflict.
Since early 2013, the people of the CAR have been facing serious challenges in accessing food due to reduced supplies, trade disruption, and loss of purchasing power. Unemployment is rampant in all sectors, both formal and informal, and civil servants have not been paid for several months.
Describing the CAR as in the grips of an "acute and complex emergency," the agencies say that there has been a drastic loss of dietary diversity, and a sharply reduced intake of animal proteins, which raises serious concerns for family nutrition and health, especially among children.
"The level of destitution among many of the families I have seen recently in the Central African Republic is shocking and yet, there is still hope to improve people's immediate and long-term prospects, if we can act on a broad enough scale to restore livelihoods and food security," said Dominique Burgeon, the Director of FAO's Emergency and Rehabilitation Division.
"First and foremost, we need to see violence stop. At the same time, we need to help save lives and rebuild livelihoods," said Arif Husain, Chief Economist at WFP. "Every passing day only makes emergency assistance more difficult and more expensive and leads to the loss of more innocent lives."
The vital agricultural sector contracted by nearly 37 percent in 2013 and business people who managed most of the trade and transport activities have left. This, coupled with a shortage of adequate vehicles, is severely affecting internal commerce, the availability of food and the import-export market.
The report states that prospects for the 2014 cropping season, beginning from March/April, are grim given the level of insecurity and lack of agricultural inputs. Agriculture, the backbone of the economy providing some 57 per cent of gross domestic product (GDP), was the hardest-hit of all sectors.
The rainy season from this month poses a severe challenge to the already inadequate road network, threatening to make many places inaccessible by road and hindering pre-positioning of food stocks and agricultural inputs.
Recommending that cash transfer programmes be considered in urban areas with relatively more secure food supply chains, the report states that such transfers could help revitalize community saving and loans to restart local economies. They could also be combined with in-kind food assistance.
The report also stresses that food assistance must include locally-preferred and available foods, such as cassava, rice and maize. Local purchase for delivery in the same area would also relieve pressure on logistics and strengthen liquidity, it adds.