Sahel grapples with food insecurity

There are major food production shortfalls across the Sahel – the band of countries south of the Sahara – that will jeopardize food availability next year. 

Finbarr O'Reilly/Reuters
A malnourished infant lies on the floor in a therapeutic feeding center run by the medical charity Medecins Sans Frontiers (MSF) in the town of Maradi in southern Niger in this file picture taken June 29, 2005.

The Sahel gets a lot of attention for its security issues, but droughts and food shortages loom much larger in the lives of ordinary people than terrorism does. On Friday the European Commission boosted its food aid to the region by 10 million euros. This announcement calls attention to the scale of the problem:

Seven million people are already facing shortages in Niger, Chad, Mali, Mauritania, Nigeria and Burkina Faso, with major shortfalls in food production in many areas. The figures point to a massive problem of food availability next year.


The poor 2011/2012 agro-pastoral season in the Sahel, with erratic rainfall followed by localized dry spells, is causing massive concern. Increased world market prices for rice will also have a negative impact on rice import levels and on prices in West Africa. As a consequence many of the poorest households will be unable to access adequate food and will fall rapidly into crisis…Niger and Mauritania have already declared a crisis, prepared national action plans and appealed for international assistance.

The UN gives more detail on the situation in Niger:

The majority of villages in impoverished Niger are now considered to be in a food and nutritional crisis, the United Nations humanitarian wing warned today, with the country facing especially tough times as the annual harvest season ends.

According to a joint UN-Nigerien communiqué, some 6,981 villages are deemed to be vulnerable to food insecurity, with particular concerns over the levels of infant and maternal malnutrition.


In the communiqué, issued last week, the UN and Niger say the landlocked nation has ended its harvest season with a deficit of more than 500,000 tons of cereals and at least 10 million tons of fodder for livestock.

As external donors sound alarms and increase aid, some national governments are taking steps to address the crisis before it escalates. For example, “The Burkina Faso government is attempting for the first time to implement a nationwide dry-season agricultural campaign to counteract possible food insecurity in areas that received poor or erratic rainfall this year.” Niger’s government, in contrast to the denials of famine that ousted President Mamadou Tandja made in 2005, is now “work[ing] with its humanitarian partners to establish an early response plan to try to alleviate the situation.”

Short-term measures like these could save thousands of lives, and it seems cooperation between governments and aid agencies is increasing over time. But the problem of food shortages in the region – like the problem of drought and famine in the Horn of Africa – will require long-term solutions also if the cycle of hunger is to be broken.

– Alex Thurston is a PhD student studying Islam in Africa at Northwestern University and blogs at Sahel Blog.

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