The aftermath of conflict in Libya, fighting in Mali and
a slow international response have added to the suffering
throughout the Sahel.
IN A REMOTE VILLAGE in the Sahel region of Burkina Faso,
Hadjatou Diko cradles Issa, her six-month-old son. A Red
Cross nurse has diagnosed him as acutely malnourished.
Issa knows nothing of the potent cocktail of drought, cricket
infestations, fragile economies and conflict that is causing
a severe food crisis in eight countries across the Sahel.
But, along with around 16 million other people in this region,
Issa knows hunger.
Throughout the Sahel, a swathe of scrubland creeping out
of the Sahara and stretching across Africa from Senegal to
Sudan, malnutrition rates are generally high, particularly
affecting children under 2 years of age. However, this year,
the situation has become so bad the United Nations (UN) is
warning that 1 million children under the age of 5 are at
risk of acute malnutrition.
“Normally the harvest, between September and November,
allows households to build up reserves of food to see them
through to the next harvest,” says Jacqueline Frize,
an independent food security consultant. “Families manage their
resources as best they can to make ends meet over the hungry
season — the final few months when their reserves begin
to dwindle. This often involves reducing the number of meals
per day and selling some sheep and goats.”
The vast majority of families in the Sahel survive on cultivating
the land and tending livestock. However, inadequate rains
in 2011 caused many crops to fail and the impact, following
a bad harvest in 2010, was devastating. This year the hungry
season began many months earlier than usual and millions
now are just barely able to survive.
“Children, particularly those aged under 5, need to
eat regularly because they are growing,” Frize says. “A
lack of food, along with limited access to health care, clean
water and adequate sanitation facilities, makes children
here much more vulnerable to disease.
“These combined factors can quickly result in acute
malnutrition, which can have lasting consequences in mental
and physical development. In extreme cases, the child dies.”
And failed harvests aren’t the only problem. Food
prices are rising and poverty-stricken households now can’t
afford the food available in the markets when their own crops
fail. So they are turning to extreme and unsustainable coping
mechanisms, such as selling off livestock, searching for
wild food, leaving home to look for work, reducing the number
of daily meals and depending on friends and extended family.
For Diko, 37, this prognosis is all too familiar. Although
she has had nine children, four died before reaching the
age of 5. “It’s a problem trying to feed my family,” she
says. “There’s not enough to cook porridge for
the baby. Many people, including my husband, leave for work
at the gold mine or in Côte d’Ivoire.”
The complications of conflict
Meanwhile in Mali, conflict has deepened the economic hardship
of a population already affected by poor harvests during
the agricultural and pastoral season of 2011–2012.
The majority of rural households maintain their livelihoods
thanks to farming and livestock activities.
“Displaced from their home without any food stock, no valuable belongings
and weakened livestock, people are also facing market disruption… [with]
no money to afford rising food prices on the market,” says Jules Amoti,
a food security delegate for the ICRC. “In addition, internally displaced
people and refugees in Burkina Faso, Mauritania and Niger are a burden for
resident populations already affected by the food crisis.
“On top of that, the return of breadwinners from Libya
cut off many households from remittances, one of the main
sources of income in Mali for poor families,” he says.
In this context the ICRC’s objective is
to obtain maximal security guarantees from different armed
groups operating in the region to allow safe access for ICRC
and Mali Red Cross staff when delivering humanitarian assistance.
Well before the fighting became widespread in Mali, the
ICRC had already launched a vast assistance programme (food
aid, distribution of agricultural inputs, cash-for-work activities
and vegetable production) in addition to animal vaccination,
feeding and livestock de-stocking to preserve livelihoods,
sustain immediate needs and help build community resilience.
“However, this programme has been hampered by the ongoing insecurity
situation in northern Mali,” says Amoti. “The current and projected
food insecurity is likely to continue and to spread if no emergency response
is provided to help the population and protect their livelihoods.”
Despite the challenges, by mid July, ICRC’s dialogue
with armed groups and others in the field allowed it to mount
a major distribution of food and seeds — along with
medical support — in various parts of northern Mali.
Response still too slow
The situation in the Sahel has not taken the international
community by surprise, but responding to a looming food crisis
is always difficult. Unlike an earthquake or flood, there
is no clear starting point. With no visible destruction it
can be hard to raise the necessary funds before a crisis
reaches famine levels.
In Senegal, the UN, the IFRC and other international organizations
started working on a Sahel response plan in September 2011.
But questions are already being raised in the international
media about the slow response, with comparisons being made
to last year’s crisis in the Horn of Africa.
“Planning started early, but the response was not early enough to protect
people’s livelihoods,” says Nathalie Bonvin, IFRC regional food
security, nutrition and livelihoods delegate in Dakar. “Therefore most
agencies are focusing on major food distributions. Yet it should have been
possible to protect livelihoods if coordination had been better and enough
funds were raised.”
However, the Movement is also taking a longer-term approach,
building people’s resilience to future food crises.
(See page 29 for new IFRC documents urging global donor and
NGO coordination around long-term food security solutions.)
“We’re strengthening agricultural activities
by improving irrigation and farming techniques,” says
Bonvin. “We’re also focusing on women, providing
education on water management and on good hygiene and nutrition
It’s not too late
Back at the health post in Peguense village, Diko listens
carefully to the Red Cross nurse. A couple of years ago,
with Red Cross support, her 3-year-old son made a full recovery
from acute malnutrition. So she knows there is still hope
And it’s not too late for the international community
to get its act together in the Sahel — which means ‘the
edge’ in Arabic. Governments, humanitarian agencies
and affected communities will need to work together and take
some tough decisions so that, maybe, for Issa’s children
it will be different. Living in the Sahel will no longer
have to mean always living on the edge.
By Sarah Oughton
Sarah Oughton is a communications officer at the British Red Cross.
According to the UN, around 320,000 Malian people have fled their
homes, including more than 131,500 people who have sought
refuge in neighbouring Burkina Faso, Mauritania and Niger.
Six-year-old Malian refugee Tata Mint Ibrahim is one of 60,000
people living in a refugee camp in Mbera, Mauritania, about
40 kilometres from the border with Mali.
Photo: ©Reuters/Joe Penney, courtesy www.alertnet.org
“It should have
if coordination had
IFRC regional food
delegate in Dakar.
Six-month-old Issa Diko being weighed and measured at the
Burkinabe Red Cross Society community-based nutrition project
in Penguese, a remote village in the Sahel region of Burkina
Faso in February. The child was assessed as acutely malnourished
and referred to the health centre 15 kilometres away.
Photo: ©Sarah Oughton/IFRC