Sahel food crisis: The situation in Burkina Faso

Recipients of an Oxfam Cash-for-Work program in North Burkina Faso wait for their payment. Peter Dörrie photo.

This is part of a series of posts, looking at the state of the Sahel food crisis. You can also find a regional overview and a report on the situation in Chad on this blog so far.

On Tuesday, I was invited by Oxfam to look at one of their projects addressing the current food crisis in the wider region. A car took us from Ouagadougou, the capital, north to Kaya and from there to several surrounding villages.

The dry season has the country in its hot and dusty grip now. Temperatures are above 40°C every day and it hasn't rained for weeks. The ground is barren and doesn't look like it could feed anybody, not to speak of the thousands of people who live here dispersed over several villages and small towns.

And indeed, the last agricultural season brought serious shortfalls: officially, the national harvest has been 5% below consumption, but nobody knows if this figure is correct and shortfalls here in the North were greater anyway. One of the beneficiaries of the Oxfam project tells me later, that she only harvested three sacks of millet instead of the normal eight to nine, which she needs to feed her household of nine persons. One sack comes at five kg.

Oxfam reacted early and with money from ECHO started a Cash-for-Work program in the region: The villagers were shown how to enhance their fields with a simple trick; Many small holes dug into the earth would catch and hold more water once the rain comes, increasing the next harvest. Everybody applied the technique on his own field and was now paid for this work.

This creates a theoretical win-win situation. The villagers will have some money to buy food on the market until the next harvest arrives, which will be larger due to the increased productivity of the fields.

To maximise the effect, Oxfam wants the villagers to buy subsidized millet, which the government currently sells as part of its food crisis emergency program. This program has received lots of acclaim by the UN and other donors. Subsidized millet costs 11,000 Franc CFA (ca. 16.5 €)per sack, which is less than half the usual 25,000 FCFA price tag.

Anticipating this price, Oxfam paid the villagers 25,000 FCFA each, enough for two sacks of subsidized millet and some necessary condiments like cooking oil and sugar. Therefore, the consternation was great when the villagers told us that they wouldn't buy subsidized millet and instead buy the normal stuff at the considerable higher price.

Recipients leave their fingerprints as proof that they received the money. Peter Dörrie photo.

The reason for this is of course not that the Burkinabè hate a bargain or are not aware that one sack of millet won't bring them over the lean period. But during the last delivery, the government provided only seven sacks of subsidized millet for the village in question, which has over 4,000 inhabitants. Nobody knows when the next delivery will happen, but it is already clear that there won't be nearly enough for everybody. And the people need the additional food now, so they have little choice.

Once the food runs out again, they will take out a loan to buy more. This way, between NGO relief programs, the government emergency aid and going into dept, there will probably be enough food for everybody to survive the hunger crisis in Burkina this year. But that doesn't mean that it won't have very negative effects on many people.

The debt will have to be paid back after the next harvest. If this again fails or only stays average, many people won't be able to fully pay off their loans and keep enough food to not hunger again next year. To safe money, kids will be taken out of school to work on the gold fields of the region instead. And not dying of hunger of course doesn't mean that one can't get ill or malnourished, which has a range of disastrous consequences of its own.

In conclusion, Burkina will be one of the least impacted countries of this year's hunger crisis. This is due to its geographical advantages, but also the early and relatively comprehensive reaction by the government and NGOs. Still, many people will be off worse after the crisis than they were before. Lets hope that they won't be forgotten as soon as the crisis is declared over.

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.