Never have so many millions faced starvation in the Sahel (Burkina Faso, Cameroon, Chad, Mali, Mauritania, Niger, and Nigeria).
Over 35 million people are currently struggling to find enough food in the region, that continent-wide arid swath south of the Sahara. Millions of children are at risk of malnutrition.
Conflict and insecurity are the main drivers of food insecurity in the Sahel. The EU is providing emergency food and nutrition assistance to the most vulnerable people affected by this crisis.
The current, unprecedented food crisis affects the whole of Africa.
Last March, United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres warned the world: “We must do everything possible to avert a hurricane of hunger and a meltdown of the global food system”.
Indeed, the latest projections from the Cadre Harmonisé, a regional mechanism monitoring food and nutrition insecurity in the Sahel, are daunting.
More than 2.7 million people are estimated to be in pre-famine condition, and 35 million people are estimated to be in food crisis over the next 3 months – which represents a 230% increase over the 2015-2020 average.
In addition, more than 2.4 million children under 5 years old will require life-saving nutrition treatment in 2022.
But what are the main drivers of hunger in the Sahel region? Charlotte Fontaine, food security expert working for EU humanitarian aid in West Africa, explains: “The unprecedented food crisis in the Sahel and the Lake Chad Basin has its roots in many factors. First and foremost, it is the overwhelming expansion of conflicts and insecurity spreading fast throughout the region.”
This was also the conclusion of the high-level meeting on the food and nutrition crises in the region that took place on 6 April.
Although rooted in structural issues like climatic fragility and uncertainty, poverty, rural marginalisation or limited investment, the food crisis is being exacerbated by “a persistent and increasing security crisis and political instability. Beyond the human tragedies they could contribute to, security tensions disrupt agropastoral and food systems and jeopardise the prospects of future generations,” states their final communiqué.
The latest Sahel analysis from the Cadre Harmonisé concurs: “Previously located in the areas of the Lake Chad Basin, Liptako Gourma, and northern Mali, insecurity [now] extends to all areas of these countries, particularly in Burkina Faso, Mali, Niger, and Nigeria”.
According to the report, this situation causes major displacements with more than 8 million internally displaced persons (IDPs) and refugees, including 1.9 million in Burkina and in Cameroon, 550,000 in Niger, more than 2.2 million in Nigeria, 400,000 in Mali and 1 million Chad) and the closure of several markets, health centres and schools.
Life after the Russian invasion of Ukraine
Russia’s unjustified war in Ukraine is accelerating the increase in the price of food, fertilisers, or fuel.
As UNSG Guterres recently reminded a global audience, 45 African and least developed countries import at least 1/3 of their wheat from Ukraine or Russia, with 18 of those importing at least 50%.
What is worse, the lean season – that critical time between 2 harvests, when food stocks are depleted, is upon us.
“After the harvest, you usually have food stock for 7 to 8 months”, says Sahou Sani Site Kouyewa, a 50-year-old farmer from Niger, where the EU supports the UN World Food Programme in providing food assistance to local populations, thanks to its local partner Karkara.
“But today, food from the harvest only lasts a couple of months”, she explains.
“The rest of the year, you need to work on other people’s lands or seek help in cities, and often you need to sell your livestock and fields to get by”, she laments.
“Households that depend mainly on agriculture or pastoralism face different lean seasons, but it always coincides with a decline in food availability, and in potential income for most of the population. This is often the period when food prices on the markets are highest and subject to the most speculation, further restricting access to food”, says Marianne Tinlot, who heads the EU’s Aid operations in Mauritania.
David Beasley, who heads the UN’s World Food Programme also pointed out recently that the number of people on the brink of starvation has “increased almost tenfold” over the past 3 years and “displacement by nearly 400”.
Food insecurity disproportionally affects young children or pregnant mothers, sometimes causing an additional affliction: malnutrition.
Undernourished children are more likely to fall ill because their immune system is weakened and not able to respond to illnesses and infectious diseases.
Every year, undernutrition is reported as a direct or aggravating factor in nearly half of all deaths in children under 5 years old.
“Lack of access to adequate food will increase the number of severely malnourished children, which is already high in the region, even in 'normal' years”, explains David Rizzi, a nutrition expert working for EU humanitarian aid.
“These malnourished children are at a very high risk of dying and must be treated quickly in health centres and hospitals”, he adds.
To address this scourge, the EU supports medical facilities around the region which, among others, include care for severe acute malnutrition, curative consultations for children, prenatal and postnatal consultations, reproductive health, or mental health care.
“We are staying at the hospital because my child is sick. Not long ago he started vomiting and having diarrhoea”, Lila Idrissa, a 19-year-old mother explained, as she was being cared for by medical staff in one of the centres run with EU humanitarian funds in Cameroon.
But despite international assistance, the future looks grim for many.
According to David Rizzi, the evolution of this crisis will depend on several factors: the climate, agricultural production, the availability and prices of foodstuffs on global, regional and national markets, and security, especially for rural populations.
Indeed, many circumstances blend in to cause this historic crisis.
“Acute climatic hazards (droughts, floods), declining livelihoods, the lack of access to land because of the violence have affected agricultural production and the incomes of the most vulnerable populations”, says Charlotte Fontaine.
“The very sharp increase in food prices on markets has a direct impact on the ability of families to access sufficient and nutritious food”, she explains.
With climate change, lean seasons tend to shift and lengthen, and households face a higher risk of irreversibly losing their usual means of existence, of suffering from malnutrition, and of no longer being able to send their children to school, as explained by EU humanitarian expert Marianne Tinlot.
Overall, almost 20 % of the EU’s annual humanitarian aid budget is used to provide emergency food assistance and nutrition worldwide. This makes the EU one of the world's major donors in this area.
The European Commission is a member of the Food Assistance Convention and commits to providing a minimum of €350 million annually to alleviate food insecurity.
The EU largely exceeded its commitment in 2020, allocating a total of € 500 million for humanitarian food assistance and nutrition.
And just a month ago, the European Commission proposed mobilising €600 million to support African, Caribbean and Pacific countries to fight the consequences of Russia's invasion of Ukraine. But 2022 is unfortunately expected to make even those figures look modest.
Story by Hilaire Avril, Regional Information Officer for West and Central Africa, EU Civil Protection and Humanitarian Aid Operations.
Publication date: 19/07/2022