By George Fominyen
DAKAR (AlertNet) - Aid groups have warned that a food emergency is looming in West Africa after erratic rainfall, drought and insect infestations decimated crops in the region’s arid Sahel belt, south of the Sahara desert.
“Action must be taken now so we avoid seeing pictures of emaciated children in the coming months,” said Al Hassan Cisse, West Africa food security advocacy coordinator for the UK-based charity Oxfam.
But what exactly needs to be done to prevent a severe hunger crisis on the same scale as the one affecting the Horn of Africa?
AlertNet put the question to experts from Oxfam, the U.N. World Food Programme (WFP), the U.N. Food and Agricultural Organisation (FAO) and the European Commission’s humanitarian aid and civil protection department (ECHO).
They suggested the following five measures:
1. Start mobilising food stocks and funding
Al Hassan Cisse, Oxfam:
Governments and international bodies have to act now to prevent a food crisis by raising funds before the lean season, which will probably see high rates of malnutrition. The lean season is the period between two harvests when food stocks are depleted, and this time it will start as early as February. Governments and donors need to respond to the calls of the affected countries, especially Mauritania, Niger, Chad and Burkina Faso.
Naouar Labidi, WFP’s food security officer for West Africa:
Experience has shown that an early mobilisation of resources is the most effective strategy as it allows for a literally life-saving and significantly cost-efficient humanitarian response. Early mobilisation of resources takes on an added urgency in this case, given that it normally takes up to three or four months to get the food assistance to those in need in the Sahel.
Jose-Luis Fernandez, emergency coordinator in FAO’s West Africa office:
Food aid agencies and governments need to start stockpiling food, including therapeutic nutritional food.
2. Distribute cash, food and seeds to stop things getting worse
Kinday Samba, WFP’s senior nutrition adviser for West Africa:
We need early prevention measures to avoid a full-scale hunger crisis. In the initial stages of a crisis, malnutrition levels are not easily visible because people develop coping strategies. It is only when they cannot cope any longer and malnutrition has reached a severe stage that it becomes clearly visible.
Cyprien Fabre, head of ECHO in West Africa:
We have to start early response activities immediately, which will ensure that the people who don’t have food stocks and money, or don’t have the means to protect their livelihoods, can be provided with support through schemes involving the distribution of cash and food.
Al Hassan Cisse, Oxfam:
Now and in the coming months, we should protect livelihoods by providing drought-resistant crop varieties which people can grow and earn some money, where possible, between December and March (in advance of the lean season).
3. Conduct thorough assessments to plan the aid response
Jose-Luis Fernandez, FAO:
We need to carry out early food security and nutrition household assessments in the affected areas to better determine which areas need free food or subsidised food distribution, and to determine how serious acute malnutrition levels are. The main affected areas are south and southwest Mauritania, west and central Mali, north and northeast Burkina Faso, west and east Niger, and the Sahelian zone of Chad.
Naouar Labidi, WFP:
With the results of the assessments, governments and humanitarian organisations can tailor a response suited to the specific needs of the situation. When resources are limited, it is vital to identify those most in need of assistance.
4. Maintain regional trade in food
Jean-Martin Bauer, WFP market analyst:
When a food crisis hits, West African nations tend to close their borders to food trade in a move to ensure domestic supplies. Such obstacles to cross-border trade exacerbate local shortages and price hikes, often making a bad situation worse. They also make regional procurement of food supplies more difficult for humanitarian agencies. Countries of the south should keep their borders open to herds from the Sahel in order to avoid livestock mortality.
5. Help farmers and pastoralists become more resilient to drought
Cyprien Fabre, ECHO:
Humanitarian interventions are not solutions. We need to work with governments and development aid partners for long-term measures to tackle what is a worsening cycle of droughts and food shortages in West Africa.
Malek Triki, WFP spokesman in West Africa:
The increasing frequency of the food crises in the Sahel makes the case for sustainable economic and agricultural development all the more urgent. The affected populations need the kind of income-generating activities that help them break the cycle of inadequate ‘coping strategies’ - just looking for the next meal - and allow them instead to build up their resilience and be able to normally provide for themselves and their families.