For the third time in ten years, drought is raging in the Sahel region of West Africa. The resulting famine could be the worst humanitarian crisis in history, a humanitarian report said on Tuesday.
Those living in the Sahel region of North-West Africa, which covers parts of Algeria, Mauritania, Mali, Senegal, Niger, Chad, Sudan and Eritrea are suffering from one of the worst droughts since 1914, with decreased rainfall rendering the areas drier and living unsustainable.
The current famine, which is expected to get much worse before it gets better, is even more serious than those in the past and aid organisations are struggling to cope, with more than 18m people facing a food crisis and more than 1m children under five risk severe acute malnutrition, a report compiled by Oxfam said adding that a number of factors including low and erratic rainfall the area experienced in 2011 led to a poor harvest in 2011 and 2012 have contributed to the current crisis. The harvest season starts in October, the study revealed.
Grain production in many areas of the Sahel region was 36% down on the previous year and 20% lower than the average for the past five years. In Senegal, the production of ground nuts, one of the area’s main crops, was down 59% on the previous year.
The situation isn’t expected to improve any time soon, either, with the next harvest due to start only in October.
In the Sahel region, the majority of people survive by producing crops such as groundnuts and animals are also key to survival – providing both food and barter power – so a crisis such as a drought has far reaching consequences.
Man-made problems have also complicated the issue. Locusts are a huge threat to crops but the instability of several of the countries they’ve infested has prevented adequate treatment.
In May, there were multiple outbreaks along the Libya/Algerian borders but due to the insecurity of the area, there simply wasn’t anyone to deal with the infestations.
As vegetation dried out, the swarms of locusts were left untreated to move south toward Chad, Niger and Mali.
Again, the political instability of these countries means that these infestations go unchecked. With the current infestations in Chad, Niger and Mali left untreated, experts predict that neighbouring countries will soon suffer from infestations, potentially compounding the crisis.
Droughts, and the famines they cause, are rarely down to one factor.
“Food crises rarely, if ever, occur because of an overall lack of food to go around,” said Professor Marc F. Bellemare, an agricultural economist at Duke University in North Carolina.
‘Rather, they occur because of structural and political problems. Sure, food is scarce in the Sahel, which makes it very expensive.
‘But in most places, when food is scarce, food prices increase, which should in principle provide an incentive for traders to import food and distribute it to the areas that need it most.
“In the Sahel, a drought sparked the current food crisis, but poor infrastructure and conflict combined to create the perfect storm of constraints to food imports and food distribution.” Another factor is the growing numbers of people.
“The population in some of the areas where droughts are most likely has almost doubled over the last two decades,” said Professor Thomas Plümper, an expert in social science at the University of Essex.
“The governments in the affected areas are notoriously bad at providing sufficient food stock to compensate for drought years and civil wars haven’t helped the situation.”
This time, however, the organisations providing assistance are doing so in a way which will help those living in the affected areas in more ways than one.
“The World Food Programme has chosen an integrated strategy. First, they buy food in countries neighbouring the Sahel Zone and secondly, they give money and food vouchers to the affected population within the Sahel Zone,” said Prof Plümper.
“This is different to previous strategies in which food was brought in from Europe – food that adversely affected the food markets in the countries concerned and which ultimately contributed to the difficult situation most farmers find themselves in.
“There is no guarantee, however, that the dual strategy of regional food supplies and monetary transfers to affected populations always works smoothly, as supply and demand have to meet at one point, but the current strategy is more sensitive toward domestic markets and structures and at least aims at supporting domestic farmers and food supplies.”
Prof Plümper added that in times of crisis, it’s crucial that those rushing to help realise that not all governments can be trusted.
“International organisations have to understand that political regimes and public administrations vary among the affected countries,” he warned.
“Democratic institutions are much more effective in channelling food aid to the affected population.
“If resources for food aid are scarce, international organisations save more lives by prioritising support of democratic countries. For example, one can expect the government of Mali to be more willing to cooperate with and support donors than the extremely corrupt governments in Mauritania and Chad.”
Nobody yet knows how this crisis will pan out, but the size of the area and the number of people affected looks set to make it one of Africa’s worst.
One of the most depressing things is that in many ways, it’s no different to the famines we’ve seen before.
“It’s not that different from other African food crises: a lack of foresight, a lack of rain, corruption, and uninterested governments are usually behind famines,” said Prof Plümper.
“This is a catastrophe which many people knew would come. There would have been plenty of time to organise international food aid and still aid came relatively late and was not well organised.”
Oxfam has launched an appeal and is aiming to reach 1.8 million people with emergency assistance.