DAKAR (AlertNet) - Several countries in West Africa face a full-scale food crisis unless the international community acts now, the United Nations warned on Friday.
Niger and Mauritania in the arid Sahel region south of the Sahara desert have issued food insecurity alerts after erratic rainfall, droughts and insect infestations hit crop yields this year, the U.N. World Food Programme said.
Some one million people are at risk in Niger and 700,000 in Mauritania.
“The threat of a full-scale food crisis, especially in Niger and Mauritania, and to a lesser degree in Chad, is real unless appropriate and concerted measures are taken without delay,” Malek Triki, the regional WFP spokesman in West Africa said.
“If they act now, the international community and the national governments can prevent the 2011 Sahel drought and crop deficits turning into a food crisis,” he told AlertNet in Dakar.
A major international intervention was required last year when over 10 million people in the Sahel experienced food shortages and severe nutritional problems after poor rainfall led to bad 2009 harvests.
Communities in the Sahel, which faces increasingly frequent droughts, have not had time to recover from the last food crisis. Many families have not had a chance to replenish their household food stocks and build up their herds of livestock.
WFP is particularly worried about the situation in Niger where around one million people are in urgent need of food after erratic rains and pest infestations make it likely there will be little or no cereal harvest.
“The country appears to be heading towards a full-scale food crisis if early measures are not taken,” Denise Brown, the head of WFP in Niger, warned in a statement.
HIGH FOOD PRICES
Preliminary results of a joint crop assessment, by various international organisations and the government, have confirmed there will be a cereal deficit of around 500,000 metric tons.
Experts say although this figure is higher than those for the crop assessments prior to the hunger crises of 2004-2005 and 2009-2010 in Niger, it does not necessarily mean the coming year will be worse.
“A food crisis can surely be averted,” Triki said of the situation in Niger.
“The fact that the government and the international community are preparing to tackle the food insecurity and malnutrition risks in the coming weeks and months will be the most significant factor in determining how this situation will compare to the previous crises,” he added.
Elsewhere, 700,000 people face severe food insecurity in Mauritania, according to WFP. The situation caused by poor rains and drought is exacerbated by high food prices in a country that is heavily dependent on food imports.
Livestock are dying by the hundreds in Mauritania and pastoralists are heading to the country’s Senegal River Valley for pasture, Triki said.
In Burkina Faso, the food-producing areas in the south and southwest are unlikely to yield the amount of crops expected while the risk of food deficits in the arid north is high following erratic rainfall.
Authorities in Mali and Chad are still assessing crop yields but low delayed rainfall and droughts in parts of these countries mean they are likely to face deficits in the production of staple cereals, aid groups have said.
Most countries in West Africa depend on rain-fed agriculture for their food needs. Experts have advised governments in the region to invest more in agriculture and in particular to encourage agricultural systems, such as irrigation, that do not depend on rainfall.