Sahel food crisis: a roundup

Farmer in Burkina Faso. Oxfam photo.

This will be the first of a series of posts, looking at the current state of the food crisis in the Sahel. In this post, I will provide a short history of the current crisis and a general overview of the situation in the region. In future posts, I will analyze the state of various countries and their reaction to the upcoming famine.

Forecasting a food crisis is no rocket science or guessing game anymore. All areas considered to be at risk of facing periodic food shortages are constantly monitored by regional and local early warning systems like the US based Famine Early Warning System Network (FEWSNet).

These systems have become fairly reliable over the last years. The recent famine in Somalia was forecasted months before the first refugees started arriving in Kenya and southern Ethiopia. And that the Sahel region would face severe food shortages this year was clear around the end of 2011 already.

Currently, NGOs like Oxfam estimate that about 12.000.000 people in Burkina Faso, Chad, Mali, Mauritania and Niger face severe food shortages. Food security is already stressed in some parts of the Sahel and the situation will deteriorate fast from now on, as the first harvests will only come in July, assuming that sufficient rain will fall this year.

The point of early warning systems is of course to give governments and organizations sufficient time to head of a crisis, before it can result in death and suffering. Food aid usually needs months to arrive where it is needed most and the logistical networks needed to distribute are also not springing up overnight. With the famine in Somalia last year, this chance was obviously missed, which can probably be contributed largely to the ongoing civil war in the impacted areas.

In the Sahel region, the situation looks a bit different. As early as February, international donors began committing money for the preparation of relief operations in the region. More than $150 Million were pledged by mid-February, while the financial tracking system of relief-coordinating organization OCHA currently lists about $200 Million pledged for Chad and Niger alone.

This early level of support is certainly positive, but considering that estimates of the total costs of relief operations are as high as $654 Million, donor countries still have to step up their commitment. NGOs are also lamenting that the focus of donors is again mostly on short-term disaster relief, while the underlying reasons of the recurring crisis are not adequately addressed.

At least as important as financing is the support of local governments for relief operations. In the past, famines were often denied by African governments, as they feared outside meddling in internal affairs or were even themselves partly responsible for the outbreak of a food crisis.

Luckily, this seems to have changed in at least some countries. The government of Niger was quick to demand help from the international community and Burkina Faso is currently implementing a dry-season agricultural campaign, for example.

In general, I think that we can be cautiously optimistic that a great catastrophe like last year in the Horn of Africa can be circumvented. But there are still many hazards, like how the ongoing conflict in Mali and insecurity in Nigeria and Libya will impact the situation. This will be analyzed in more detail in upcoming posts, looking at the state of the food crisis in the various countries of the region.