Famine alert: West Africa still has time to avoid 2012 food crisis

A Famine Early Warning System – which accurately predicted the 2011 drought in the Horn of Africa – warns that millions of West Africans may face a food crisis in 2012.

Africa looks like it might be hit once more by a food crisis, this time in the arid Sahel region of Western Africa. But the good news is that the world’s Famine Early Warning System (FEWS) is giving West African countries and donor nations a period of time to prepare, says the aid group Oxfam.  

Early reports suggest that as many as 6 million people in Niger and 2.9 million people in Mali live in vulnerable areas, where low rainfall, falling groundwater levels, poor harvests, lack of pastureland, rising food prices, and a drop in remittances from family members living abroad are starting to take their toll.

Changing weather patterns have hit the Sahel region as recently as 2010, and many people who are most vulnerable in the looming food crisis are those who had sold off their livestock and seed crops in order to survive the 2010 drought, and now have fewer assets to draw on in the future.

“The parallels between the Horn of Africa famine and the early warnings in West Africa are striking,” says Stephen Cockburn, regional campaign and policy manager for Oxfam’s Dakar office.

“The good news is that the early warning systems in place are working this year far better than before, and that gives us an opportunity to act earlier,” Mr. Cockburn says. “No one can say in a few months' time that they didn’t know this was coming.”

What gives aid groups like Oxfam the ability to plan ahead is a complex system of information that relies on everything from satellite imagery and ground censors to the assessments of agronomists and food-relief workers on the ground. On the tech side, there is the Famine Early Warning System (FEWS), funded and run by the US Agency for International Development (USAID) in partnership with the US Geological Survey and a number of UN relief agencies. And on the UN ground assessment side, there is the Food Security and Nutrition Analysis Unit of the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization. Taken together, these two systems are getting better and better at predicting food crises, and giving aid groups the time to respond.

As early as August 2010, the FEWS-NET began ringing alarm bells, alerting aid agencies of a looming drought and food crisis in the Horn of Africa region, including Somalia, Ethiopia, and northern Kenya. Nancy Lindborg, USAID’s assistant administrator for democracy, conflict, and humanitarian assistance, testified before Congress in July that USAID began prepositioning supplies in the region, as FEWS had estimated that 2.4 million people would be in crisis.

But she added, “General insecurity and lawlessness prevents aid workers from reliably reaching more than 60 percent of the people in Somalia who need life-saving assistance,” adding that “threats and unacceptable conditions placed by armed groups, in particular al-Shabab” had prompted the UN’s World Food Programme to suspend its operations in southern Somalia, the worst drought-affected region in the Horn of Africa.

The FEWS predictions were subsequently confirmed, allowing aid agencies to prevent a “worst case scenario,” reported Hamilton Wende in the Monitor this week, as the world concluded climate talks in Durban South Africa this week.

But critics fault a slow response by donors, along with militant bans on foreign relief agencies in southern Somalia, for exacerbating a food crisis that has forced has made 12 million people reliant on food aid, and that could end up killing as many as 750,000, the UN now says.

But suffering is by no means inevitable, says Mamadou Biteye, Oxfam Humanitarian Lead in West Africa, in a statement.

"The situation is looking extremely worrying for millions of people in West Africa, but the worst is not yet inevitable,” says Mr. Biteye. “The crisis has been identified early, and we know that there are cost-effective measures that can be taken now to protect those most vulnerable. This time we can act before the emergency hits."

MONITOR QUIZ: Weekly News Quiz for Dec. 4-9, 2011

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