Millions face new hunger threat in west and central Africa

Sarah Isa, 50, fled her village with her six children three years ago after Boko Haram fighters killed her husband. She is now struggling to find enough food for the family. Like many farmers displaced by the conflict, she has not been able to grow any crops since fleeing her village. (Credit: Ibrahim Dung/Oxfam)

Conflict and climate change are creating a burgeoning hunger crisis in west and central Africa.

With funds being shifted to meet other crises, such as Syria, many worry that the international community will not have the resources necessary to help feed those most in need in a part of sub-Saharan Africa not accustomed to such food insecurity.

More than 9 million people in the Lake Chad region – an area the size of Ireland that covers Chad, Niger, Cameroon and northern Nigeria – are “severely food insecure,” according to the U.N.’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO). Experts are warning of the worst food and hunger crisis to hit the region in decades.

Lake Chad is a vital water resource and lifeline for millions in central and west Africa. But over the last half century, perhaps due to climate change, the lake has shrunk by 90 percent, reducing farmers’ access to water for crops. Conflict in the region has exacerbated this by displacing farming communities and reducing harvests.

The levels of malnutrition, which are higher than the global average, are now so high that researchers like Saul Guerrero, director of nutrition and his colleagues at Action Against Hunger often doubt the statistics they encounter. “We are constantly going back to the data to double and triple-check, because you just wouldn’t expect those kinds of rates of malnutrition in these parts of the world.”

Guerrero and others say that conflict across the region, from the Central African Republic to Nigeria, has driven farmers away from their homes, leaving behind failed harvests and hunger for many living in these regions.

“Most of the 4.5 million who have been displaced don’t have access to a source of income or their land,” said Guerrero, who added that several correlating factors are conspiring to make the crisis even worse. “Every factor compounds one another.”

Speaking to Humanosphere, Salome Ntububa, Christian Aid’s regional emergency officer for Central Africa, highlighted the further impact of mass displacement on local food markets. As the demand for food increases with more people concentrating in cities and in towns, so do prices in the local markets.

“People have been displaced. So many of them lose their coping strategies and then food prices are also rising, so people cannot produce, and they can’t find the money to buy their food,” said Ntububa.

One country, Nigeria, is usually relatively immune from food insecurity. However, recent droughts in the north of the country, as well as protracted fighting involving the terrorist group Boko Haram, has threatened the lives of farmers who produce food for the region.

A large number of those suffering from malnutrition are children, who can face further complications to their physical and mental development. “Basically one in every 10 severely malnourished child across the world this year will be in Nigeria, which most people would not have anticipated just a few years ago,” said Guerrero.

In Nigeria, some 250,000 children face severe malnourishment, according to UNICEF. As Nigeria normally produces the food it needs to feed its population, this is particularly alarming. Three million people, the vast majority of those facing food insecurity in Nigeria, are in the northern regions that have borne the brunt of protracted fighting against Boko Haram.

“Nigeria used to produce a lot of food, but now there’s a conflict situation so they cannot provide food for the wider population,” said Ntububa.

In July, Doctors without Borders accused the U.N. of not doing enough to prevent the food crisis in Nigeria from escalating. Isabelle Mouniaman, head of operations in Nigeria for Doctors Without Borders (MSF), told the Guardian that the organization tried to raise the issue with the U.N., but was largely ignored.

Yet the U.N. appears aware of the crisis in the Lake Chad Basin region; many there say the problem is that the international community is not responding adequately. In a statement to the U.N. Security Council in July, under-secretary-general for humanitarian affairs and emergency relief coordinator, Stephen O’Brien, also said he believed this hunger crisis has been neglected.

“We urgently need to strengthen international attention onto this neglected crisis. For months I have been shouting into what feels like an empty room to highlight the dire situation in the Lake Chad Basin,” O’Brien said.

Despite the U.N.’s stated concerns about the crisis, it will take more funding to tackle the growing crisis. A recent World Food Program report highlighted that funding for its School Meals project has shrunk by 90 percent over the last few years, leaving many children “in the grip of chronic hunger and malnutrition.”

The School Meals project used to provide free meals at school for children across the region. In 2013 it served 200,000 children, but this year the number has been reduced to just 15,000.

The report cites “dwindling resources” and “shifting donor priorities” as reasons for an underfunded response. The U.N. estimates that more than $535 million is needed to fully fund the humanitarian response in the Lake Chad region and provide assistance to 9 million people. However, funding received across the region has not been adequate enough, receiving under 30 percent of the required amount.

Over the coming months, UNOCHA estimates that rainfall will be lower than on average for this time of year in the region. With the region at equal risk from climate shocks as much as protracted fighting, the U.N. is not yet prepared to fully respond to the crisis.

Despite this, Guerrero is optimistic because “nutrition has more attention than there has ever been before” from donors. The question, he said, is if the money needed to actually prevent a major crisis will match the rhetoric.

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Charlie Ensor

Charlie Ensor is a Nairobi-based freelance journalist, focusing on refugee rights, development and humanitarian crises in East Africa. His work has also featured on the Guardian and WhyDev; he also writes his own blog on development and aid issues. Charlie tweets @charlieensor, and you can contact him at charlieensor1990@googlemail.com