Drought in West Africa Threatens Food Security

By Eleanor Fausold

In the Sahel region of West Africa, where people have suffered from an increased frequency and severity of food crises over the past decade and are still recovering from a food crisis back in 2010, a severe drought is threatening the food security of millions of people.

Severe drought is threatening the food supply in western Africa. (Photo credit: Bernard Pollack)

The crisis has been brought on by unreliable rains that have led to a poor harvest, particularly in Niger, Chad, Mauritania, Mali, and Burkina Faso. According to the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), international agency Oxfam International states, agricultural production in the Sahel region has decreased 25 percent since 2010, with the grain harvest down by 1.4 million metric tons. Mauritania has been hit hardest, suffering a 52 percent drop in crop production from last year.

Harvests in nearby countries such as Nigeria, Benin, and Ghana have had more success, but it is unlikely that their surpluses will be enough to meet the desperate need in the Sahel region. Food aid bought locally is currently 15 to 20 percent cheaper than on the international market, but high prices and uncertainty of supply will likely result in the cost of supplying food being much higher than it was in the 2010 crisis.

Food prices in the region are 20 to 25 percent higher than they have been, on average, over the past five years. These numbers could rise another 25 to 30 percent by July and August, the months at the peak of the hunger season, putting struggling families at an even greater risk.

Violence in the region is also adding to the strain placed on countries suffering from the crisis. The conflict in northern Mali has forced 160,000 people to flee their homes. These people have fled to neighboring Niger, Burkina Faso, and Mauritania, putting even more pressure on nations with an already-limited food supply.

The crisis is far reaching, with 700,000 people in Mauritania struggling to meet their daily food needs and 3.5 million people in Chad facing food insecurity. According to Oxfam, malnutrition rates in the region are soaring, hovering between 10 and 15 percent across Chad, Burkina Faso, Mali, Mauritania, Niger, and northern Senegal. More than one million children in the region are at risk of severe malnutrition.

The crisis has become so severe that in some parts of Chad, villagers have resorted to digging up ant hills in an attempt to gather grain that the ants have stored. The villagers say that unless they receive help quickly, they will be forced to abandon their villages in a month’s time. In the Tillabery region in western Niger, some families have already been forced to migrate to cities in search of food and jobs. As a result, Oxfam states, government figures suggest that 33,000 children have already dropped out of school to follow their parents.

With the next harvest in the region not expected until October, international support will play an important role in helping the Sahel region survive this crisis. The UN has estimated that US$724 million is needed to address current needs, a number that could rise as the situation worsens. Some countries have begun to donate, but over half the amount is still needed. Oxfam states that if the international community fails to act, the drought could escalate to a humanitarian disaster affecting 13 million people.

In response to the crisis, Oxfam Great Britain has launched a £23 million (US$36 million) emergency appeal. The charity hopes to reach one million vulnerable people, providing the affected region with aid including food, cash, support to livestock, water, sanitation, and hygiene promotion campaigns.

To learn more about how you can contribute to Oxfam’s relief campaign, click here.

Eleanor Fausold is a research intern with the Nourishing the Planet project. 

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