Voice of America: Food crisis in the Sahel

Not much happened here on the blog for some days now. That's mostly because I was busy actually working on stuff, which will be published over the next days/weeks. First up is a short news clip for Voice of America about the Sahel food crisis, for which I researched video and story, while David Axe did production and voice:

Sahel food crisis: The situation in Chad

A mother feeds her severely malnourished son at the Action Against Hunger/UNICEF-run nutrition feeding centre at Mao district hospital in Kanem, western Chad. IRIN photo.

I'm currently writing a series of posts looking at the state of the Sahel food crisis. The first part, a regional overview, was published here. Over the coming days I will look at the other countries that are impacted by the food crisis, so come back if you like to know more!

I'm beginning my country-by-country analysis of the Sahel food crisis with Chad, as it is this country that will probably bear the brunt of what is coming has already arrived.

First the facts: parts of Chad have already descended into full-blown emergency, with thousands of children being admitted to nutrition treatment centers. Action Contre la Faim (ACF) also reports on numerous deaths due to late admission of children to the centers. The district of Kanem seems to be the most heavily impacted at the moment.

In a normal year, the lean period would only be about to begin, but this year, several developments converge to deliver a situation which will only get worse over the next months:

First is of course the erratic and low rainfall over the last year. According to the FAO, agricultural production was 50% lower in 2011 than it was the year before.

But the effect of this is worsened by several man-made factors. Firstly, Chad is situated between several active conflict zones: Libya, northern Nigeria and Darfur. Libya was traditionally an important source of remittances from Chadian guest workers. These had to flee during the Libyan civil war, as black Africans increasingly became targets of revenge killings by the Libyan rebels.

The ongoing attacks by Boko Haram in Nigeria in turn prompted the government there to close all borders to its northern neighbors. This has hit many people in Kanem hard, as they used to sell cattle to Nigeria for income generation.

Additionally, these conflicts have led to a "pipeline constraints": food aid is usually delivered by ship and road. Chad is landlocked and especially Nigeria would normally be a natural transit route for food aid delivery.

Adding to this are several internal issues. The health system of Chad is in its best times described as "dysfunctional", being underfinanced and having not nearly enough staff to cope with the demand.

The government of Chad was also very late to admit the need for help. This has further slowed down the delivery of food aid, as international organizations and NGOs have to get government approval to start their activities. It may also have contributed to the relatively low amount of financing currently available for Chad; While financing requests for Niger have been met to almost 40%, requests for Chad have been financed only by 25% so far, according to OCHA.

Taking action in Chad has become a matter of urgency. Both local and international governments should increase their activities and financial contribution to keep the situation from spinning out of control.

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.

World Politics Review: Mali’s Tuareg Rebellion Puts Region at Risk

As the fighting between the Tuareg rebels of the National Movement for the Liberation of Awazad (MNLA) and the Malian army enters its third month, there are few indications that the conflict will be resolved in the near future.

On a military level, the advantage lies with the well-equipped and experienced Tuareg fighters, many of whom are veterans of earlier rebellions and the Libyan civil war. Using long-range guerrilla tactics, mainly surprise attacks launched over distances of hundreds of miles with four-wheel-drive pickup trucks, they have sacked at least seven Malian garrison towns so far, including one this past weekend.

The human costs of the rebellion are mounting: Up to 160,000 people have been displaced by the fighting, according to Oxfam, about half of them fleeing into neighboring Niger, Mauritania, Algeria and Burkina Faso. […]

Read the rest at World Politics Review. [Edit: you can now click through to the full version of the article. No subscription required anymore!]