Sahelian Food Crisis: Update and Resources

The United Nations Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs, Valerie Amos, made headlines this week after she visited Senegal and Burkina Faso and stated, “The humanitarian situation [in the Sahel] is expected to remain critical at least until the main harvest this autumn.” The UN estimates that fifteen million people in the region do not have enough to eat; Oxfam puts the number higher, at eighteen million. The World Food Programme has called the current situation “one of the most complex and widest reaching food crises to hit the Sahel of West Africa in living memory. Whereas the 2005 and 2010 food crises hit mainly two countries – in Niger and Chad – this current crisis has hit in no less than 8 countries from Mauritania all the way to Chad.” The situation is tragic.

Here are several resources for those who want to understand the crisis more fully:

  • The United States government’s Famine Early Warning Systems Network (FEWSNET) has a helpful map of the crisis in West Africa. Portions of Senegal, Mauritania, Mali, Burkina Faso, Niger, Nigeria, and Chad are marked as “stressed” (the second level on a five-point scale) while some portions of Mauritania, Mali, Niger, and Chad are in “crisis” (the third level).
  • The UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs offers important coverage of the crisis. One piece emphasizes the troubled situation in northern Mali, where the ongoing rebellion has taken a major humanitarian toll. This is just the most vivid illustration of how the intersection of politics and drought can prove deadly. 3.5 million people face hunger in Mali.
  • The World Food Programme has a useful Q&A on the crisis.
  • Finally, this reporting from on the ground in northeastern Senegal is worth reading to get a sense of how ordinary people are experiencing the drought.

A Look at the Food Crisis in Chad

The Sahel currently faces a food crisis that could affect as many as 15 million people.

This includes 5.4 million people in the Niger (35 percent of the population), 3 million in Mali (20 percent), around 1.7 million in Burkina Faso (10 percent), around 3.6 million in Chad (28 percent), 850 000 in Senegal (6 percent), 713 500 in the Gambia (37 percent) and 700 000 in Mauritania (22 percent).

The looming crisis is due to a combination of factors, including drought; sharp declines in cereal production and high grain prices; a shortage of fodder for livestock; a reduction in remittances from migrant workers in several countries; environmental degradation; displacement; and chronic poverty deepened by chronic crisis.

Total 2011 cereal production in the Sahel was on average 25 percent lower than in 2010, but as much as 50 percent lower in Chad and Mauritania. There were also localized, huge food production deficits in other countries (up to 80 percent).

As the above quotation indicates, Chad is one of the most affected countries. IRIN gives a ground-level perspective on the crisis, and sets Chad’s problems in the context of broader fallout from the civil war in Libya and the violence in Northern Nigeria:

Late Chadian government recognition of a food crisis, a slow build-up from aid agencies, and severe pipeline constraints due to closed Libyan and Nigerian borders mean food aid has not yet arrived in Chad, despite many thousands of people having already run out of food.

Residents of Eri Toukoul village in Kanem Region, western Chad, told IRIN they have nothing to eat. Most are surviving by leaving for towns and cities. Grain stores are empty and the animals they used to rely on are dead.

“Before we had 10-15 animals each, now we have nothing,” said Fatou Su Hawadriss, who has seven children. Almost every family in this village once had at least one relative working in Libya who sent back money, but now all have fled the violence there.

Oxfam, meanwhile, has produced a video on the situation in Chad.

Both Oxfam and the United Nations are calling for millions of dollars to support relief efforts across the region.

The debate continues about how best to address the problem of food insecurity, with NPR recently showcasing new research on where relief organizations should purchase food supplies. The findings seem fairly common-sense to me:

Simple, unprocessed grain or beans were clearly cheaper in local markets; processed food such as oil sometimes was cheaper to ship from the U.S. The lesson from this is a simple one, the researchers concluded: Don’t set up rigid rules that require food to be bought in any particular place. Buy food wherever it makes most sense.

The larger question about the region’s recurring food crises still remains, however: What is the best long-term strategy for reducing food insecurity? For Chad and many of its neighbors, that question is of crucial importance.