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The  hungry season


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 practices.”

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 for Issa.

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












“It should have
been possible to
protect livelihoods
if coordination had
been better and
enough funds
were raised.”

Nathalie Bonvin,
IFRC regional food
security, nutrition
and livelihoods
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


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