More than nineteen million people face famine in West Africa as drought spreads throughout the Sahel region. Many are surviving on wild roots and fruit as their one meal a day. Action is needed now to avert the famine. ACT Alliance members have been working in the affected countries before the latest disaster struck. They have helped communities build resilience but this is not enough and they are now appealing for further assistance to help them survive through the current crisis. Action now will prevent the disaster from expanding and ensure more people will survive. ACT Alliance members are providing essential food and safe water supplies across the region.
The drought is the latest catastrophe affecting the people of Burkina Faso, Chad, Mali, Mauritania, Niger and Senegal. Lower crop yields from the drought combined with high cereal prices, the lack of work for migrant labourers and displacement out of fears for security are pushing West Africans to the brink.
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Fatumata (right), 28, knocks the leaves of a thorny tree with a long metal pole and picks them up off the dry and dusty ground one by one. “We normally only feed these leaves to our animals,” she explains, “but the situation is so difficult now that we are eating them ourselves.”
When asked if there is any nutrition in them she shrugs. “No, but we don’t have any choice. It’s an obligation. It’s all there is.”
Fatumata is from Tinakoff in northern Burkina Faso, a village like hundreds of others across the region that have experienced zero harvests. The latest humanitarian reports state that 1.6 million people in the country are in need of food aid.
The rains came late last year and when they arrived they were pitiful. Months of toil in the searing Sahelian heat came to nothing. “There are no crops and no pasture for the animals,” explains Elmamoune eg Fereby Baye, the village chief. “This is the worst experience we have had since I was village chief. It’s the worst experience I have lived through.”
“The animals are hungry and skinny so we can’t sell them, so we don’t have any money to buy any food. It’s all about animals here. If the animals are not in good health, then neither are we.”
Elmamoune fears for the well-being of his villagers: “It’s very, very difficult, very worrying, to such an extent that I can’t sleep.”
Tahya Wellet Etawantaw, 30, is also having sleepless nights. “We used to have 50 animals and now we have nothing,” she explains wearily. “I have to rely on my neighbours to feed my children. If they have nothing, they don’t eat. Or I go out to beg for food that I can come home and cook.”
Tahya’s eight-year old daughter Sohat is suffering from small pox, but she can’t take her to the health centre as she has no money to pay for any treatment. Her husband lingers outside the house listening to the conversation, but he refuses to come and speak with us. “He is a Peulh herdsman,” says Aisseta Kabré, resilience officer for Christian Aid, a member of ACT Alliance. “It is very difficult for him to admit to anyone that he no longer has any animals.”
The current situation in northern Burkina Faso represents a perfect storm for an acute food crisis. People were still recovering from the drought in 2010 when the rains failed last year. And the poor harvest has contributed to exhorbitant food prices. A cereal trader in the northern town of Gorom Gorom explained how a 100kg bag of millet (a staple crop in Burkina) had almost doubled in price from 14,500 cfa (NZD $36) this time last year to 27,500 cfa (NZD $68).
The conflicts in neighbouring Ivory Coast and Libya have also had a profound effect. “After animals, people here depend on the Ivory Coast to earn a living,” explained Elmamoune. According to a World Bank report, remittances from Ivory Coast go to a third of households in Burkina Faso, especially the poorest, and are the most significant migration flows in the whole of sub-Saharan Africa. As a result of both conflicts 420,000 migrants have returned to Burkina Faso.
Akmoudou (left), Fatumata’s husband was one of them. He went to work in the Ivory Coast to earn money for his family and was doing well with fishing and building activities but that all changed when civil war broke out in 2010.
“During those times we went five days without eating, we couldn’t go out of the house,” he explains. “Many of my friends died. I managed to escape and came back here.” Someone paid for him to get from Abidjan to Ouagadougou but he had to sell a cow to pay for him to travel the 280 km home from the capital.
He adds: “I'm a poor person here now. There is no work. There is nothing. In the dry season we plant and there's no rain, there's nothing, it's poverty.”
The village chief explained how it was so bad in Tinakoff (6km from the Malian border) that herders started to leave for Mali to find pasture, but because of the violence there involving the Touaregs, Malians were fleeing to come to Burkina Faso.
People in northern Burkina are welcoming their troubled visitors, but it is becoming more and more difficult, especially as people are coming with their cattle, putting extra pressure on the already scarce or non-existent pasture. Fearing conflict, the Burkinabé government has deployed helicopters to monitor the situation on the border.
All of these contributing factors mean that this current crisis in Burkina Faso is much worse than the one in 2010 and is perhaps one of the worst in history.
Cristina Ruiz of Christian Aid who is currently overseeing an emergency food distribution in the north of the country said: “It’s not unusual for people to experience malnutrition in Burkina Faso and to use coping mechanisms like eating one meal a day or food that is usually only meant for animals, but that normally happens a lot later.”
She concluded that: “If we don’t react soon there could well be a famine situation all over northern Burkina Faso in April. People cannot stand more than two months in this situation.”
Days later, The Alliance for Technology Development Assistance, supported by Christian Aid, started distributing emergency food, seeds and cash for work to over 54,000 people in the north of the country. And Akmoudou, Fatumata, Tahya and their children will be among the first to benefit.
2 March 2012
ACT Alliance/Christian Aid
Pockets of successful resilience that provide a blueprint for a way beyond chronic food insecurity are mitigating mounting despair across the drought-ridden Sahel.
The despair is born of a deepening food crisis as an estimated 12 million people concentrated primarily in the West African region of the Sahel teeter on the brink of famine. The governments of Burkina Faso, Mali, Mauritania, Chad and Niger have already declared states of emergency and called for international assistance.
The United Nations says that a shortfall of more than 500,000 tonnes of grain and 10 million tonnes of animal feed has left up to six million people at risk of hunger in Niger, one of the world’s poorest countries. In Burkina Faso, the deficit could leave as many as two million people at risk. Pastoralists, mothers and children under the age of five are the most vulnerable groups.
ACT Alliance governing board member Paul Valentin was in Burkina Faso recently, where he saw some of the human faces impacted by these dramatic numbers: families surviving on what they could gather from trees; many are eating just once a day.
“There is a sense of despair because people literally don’t know where their next meal is coming from,” said Valentin, who also serves as international director of ACT Alliance member Christian Aid.
A series of interrelated developments have reinforced each other, compounding food insecurity in the region: cyclical droughts, severe flooding, crop failure, rising food prices, and depleted grain and livestock reserves resulting from previous years’ crises have undermined people’s ability to survive the regular lean period that usually begins in May or June.
This situation has been further exacerbated by the spillover effects of political turmoil and conflict in Cote d’Ivoire and Libya. Clashes in Mali between Tuareg rebels and soldiers have left more than 60,000 people internally displaced and a similar number have fled to Niger, Burkina Faso, Mauritania and Algeria, placing further strain on already depleted water reserves and animal pastures in these neighbouring countries.
Towards a sustainable solution
Food scarcity is a chronic problem in the region and this emerging crisis comes on the heels of major international aid interventions in 2005 and 2010. Until the structural factors that contribute to regular food shortages are eradicated, many parts of West Africa will remain vulnerable to famine.
The need for sustainable, structural solutions to food insecurity has helped shape ACT’s response to previous years’ crises and will continue to do so as this new humanitarian episode unfolds. ACT is working not only to provide immediate food aid, but also to help people hit by the crisis provide for themselves over the long term.
In Mauritania, for example, ACT is funding emergency food aid through its implementing member, The Lutheran World Federation with a focus on populations most at risk to famine, including pregnant women and children. At the same time, ACT is also working to help these populations develop their capacities to produce food and earn the small income that will allow them to become self-sufficient and free from aid.
“ACT’s work in Mauritania is focused on bridging that aid-development continuum. We are committed to providing humanitarian relief to the most vulnerable – but we also want to empower people to generate sustainable food and income for themselves and their families,” said ACT General Secretary John Nduna.
ACT’s focus on strengthening people’s resilience to crises like this one is manifest in the work of many other members in the region, including Christian Aid. In response to previous years’ crises, Christian Aid has helped local communities in Burkina Faso dig wells and engage in intensive food production.
Valentin reported that these communities are faring relatively well. They are able to secure water, provide nutrition for themselves and produce goods to sell – helping carry them through the lean period into the next harvest.
“Driving through a totally parched landscape and arriving at a place where you suddenly have a green oasis of everything under the sun growing and being tended to by local people – with women playing a very important role in production but also benefiting from the fruits of their labour – shows that even in the Sahel you can do things that defy the logic that this is a hopeless place,” concluded Valentin.
Nduna echoed this sentiment. “This is at the heart of ACT’s message: not only to provide emergency relief to the most vulnerable populations but also to help build resilience to chronic food insecurity, so that people can look after themselves and minimise the need for outside intervention.”
24 February 2012