Sahel: Drought, displacement and conflict leave 20 million food insecure

Arid soils in Mauritania, 2012. (Photo: Pablo Tosco/Oxfam)

Conflict and drought are working in tandem to leave more than 23 million people food insecure in West Africa. Yet again, there are concerns that the region is on the brink of crisis. And predictions of an El Niño year could make matters worse.

“All signs are pointing to another challenging year for farmers and pastoralists in the Sahel who are trying to meet their minimum basic needs for their families,” says Bahram Amintorabi, disaster management coordinator, International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies Sahel region, in a release.

The Sahel region, a band that extends across Africa just below the Sahara desert, faces frequent drought and inadequate rain seasons. A drought in 2012 that affected more than 20 million people galvanized the international community to act. UNICEF even brought in former Disney child star Selena Gomez to draw attention to the emerging crisis. The impact of the drought was not as bad as projected worse-case scenarios.

Three years later, the region endured more extended dry periods and the underlying problems that drove concerns in 2012 remain. Other factors make the region more vulnerable. The outbreak of Ebola in Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea is still winding down. The three countries are only now moving into the recovery mode. There are the displacements caused by Boko Haram in Northern Nigeria and insecurity in other parts of the Sahel. And then there are the refugees fleeing fighting in nearby Central African Republic and Darfur for countries in the Sahel.

Some 3.5 million people are displaced across the Sahel. That is twice as many people from last year, said the United Nations last week. The amount of money available to support the tens of millions of people affected is well short. Only 25 percent of the nearly $2 billion United Nations appeal is funded. Part of it makes up for the shortfall created by last year when donors did not meet the $1.95 billion request for 2014. Having enough money is a crucial first step to ensuring people in need of aid are reached.

Credit: UN

Credit: UN

“This has very practical consequences in terms of what we can and can’t do in terms of the numbers of people that we can and can’t reach,” said U.N. Assistant Secretary General Robert Piper, to AFP.

Of the more than 20 million food insecure people, some 5.8 million are acutely malnourished, says the U.N. The Red Cross and Red Crescent called for immediate nutrition support for pregnant women, breastfeeding mothers and children under 2 years old. Problems could persist longer or get worse if 2015 turns out to be an El Niño year. The same concerns existed last year, but the global weather event did not take place. Its potential is concerning to Oxfam’s West Africa regional director Aboubacry Tall.

“If El Niño was to [cause drought]on top of Ebola in affected countries it would certainly be a significant catastrophe in Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea. It would put back any hope of recovery by at least another year,” he said to the Guardian.

Poor harvests caused by a lack of rain and conflict are conspiring to make an already difficult situation worse for the Sahel. Warnings are already emerging as the “lean season” arrives in sub-Saharan Africa. They are likely to intensify in the coming months if the needed funds do not increase and the factors that continue to displace people persist.

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Tom Murphy

Tom Murphy is a New Hampshire-based reporter for Humanosphere. Before joining Humanosphere, Tom founded and edited the aid blog A View From the Cave. His work has appeared in Foreign Policy, the Huffington Post, the Guardian, GlobalPost and Christian Science Monitor. He tweets at @viewfromthecave. Contact him at tmurphy[at]humanosphere.org.