Food security and malnutrition rates across the Sahel are deteriorating, due in large part to ongoing conflict and instability in the Central African Republic (CAR), northern Mali, and northeast Nigeria, according to the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA).
Nearly five million more people have joined the ranks of the food insecure since the beginning of the year, bringing the estimated total to 24.7 million - more than double the number in 2013, says OCHA.
"The dramatic rise in insecurity across the region over the last year has generated a tremendous number of people that need to be fed and housed and given health care, because they've been ripped from their livelihoods, as well as their homes," said Robert Piper, the UN regional humanitarian coordinator for the Sahel. "It has also, of course, had an impact on the market and some food prices."
Negative coping mechanisms
Some 6.5 million people have crossed the emergency threshold from being moderately food insecure to facing an acute food and livelihood crisis. This is four million more people in this category than in January.
"There's a big difference between Phase 2 [moderately food insecure], where you are food insecure but using coping mechanisms to deal with it, and Phase 3 [acute food and livelihood crisis], where you have started to use negative coping mechanisms that have potentially very long-term negative consequences," Piper said.
Negative coping mechanisms include taking out a loan that must be repaid from profits from the following year's harvest, eating seeds that should be saved for next year's planting season, and reducing the number of daily meals from three down to two, or even one.
"It becomes a very slippery slide, and one that is of great concern to us," Piper said.
Experts say it is still too early to determine what the final crop output will look like this year, but late and erratic rains across much of the region meant many seeds were lost before they had a chance to sprout. Others never had the chance to finish their growth cycles, according to the UN's Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO).
"We are still monitoring the situation, as there are many variables [such as how long the rains will last and who managed to produce what crops] that need to be monitored to see what the future will hold in terms of harvest at the end of this agricultural season," said Patrick David, FAO's deputy coordinator for food security analysis for West Africa and the Sahel. "But the trend is worrying in some areas."
A preliminary joint assessment by the World Food Programme (WFP) and FAO in late August found that record rainfall deficits, which were recorded along the Atlantic Coast - from southern Mauritania south to Guinea Bissau, as well as northern Ghana, Benin and Togo - negatively affected agricultural activities.
In some areas, such as Côte d'Ivoire, Mali and Niger, the rain fell heavily, causing crop and flood damage.
In others, the rains came early, lasted briefly, and then disappeared for a long time. Those farmers who had the means to reseed did, but many others, who did not, could not.
While most crops are expected to reach full maturity across much of the region following the start of steady rains across the region at the end of July, overall production is expected to be less than the five-year average in Guinea Bissau, Gambia, Senegal and Mauritania, according to WFP.
CAR is also expected to have below-average food production this year due to ongoing civil conflict, which has interrupted agricultural activities in many areas, says the Famine Early Warning Systems Network (FEWS NET).
Average food prices across the region, with the exception of meat, fell for the fifth consecutive month in August, according to the latest data from FAO's food price index. Cereal prices averaged 11.7 percent below the average in August 2013.
The WFP says, however, that prices in some markets in Mali, Chad and Senegal, are higher than average due to a longer than usual lean season this year. Market prices have also risen in Niger's Diffa region, due to the continued arrival of refugees from Nigeria.
"This [increased food prices] is certainly having an impact on many households, and can really affect the food security of the most vulnerable households," David said.
While the Ebola outbreak has not yet directly affected food prices in the Sahel, border closings and movement restrictions have impacted trade flows, particularly along Senegal's border with Guinea, where the closure of 16 markets have reduced trade volume by up to 50 percent, WFP says.
Due to the late onset of rains in areas such as Mauritania, northern Niger, Chad, Senegal and northern Cameroon, pastoralists had a much longer lean season than usual in 2014.
"They were waiting for their pasture, because as soon as the rains come, of course the fodder starts to grow, and then animals get fed and there is a supply of drinking water," Piper said. "But they had to wait a very, very long time this year."
Some of the animals died. Others never became large or healthy enough to sell for a decent profit.
"We've now left the period of hardship for the pastoralists and this situation has improved some," David said. "But they passed a very difficult time in certain zones and it's possible that this will affect the incomes of those that were most vulnerable."
The security situation in CAR - a key frontier for the movement of animals into and out of the Sahel and northern Nigeria, and a key market for buying and selling animals - also meant that many pastoralists were unable to follow their normal trade routes.
There are now more than 6.4 million acutely malnourished children under the age of five in the Sahel, including 1.6 million who are severely malnourished and 4.8 million who are moderately malnourished, according to OCHA.
"Malnutrition is stubbornly high and remains high in all the countries, but has deteriorated significantly at the moderate levels in northeast Nigeria," Piper said, adding that around 1.4 million more children have become malnourished since the beginning of the year.
The majority of this increase comes from northeastern Nigeria, where ongoing violence and conflict between Boko Haram, Nigerian security forces and civilian militias continues to displace people in considerable numbers. There are now an estimated 1.5 million displaced people in Nigeria, according to OCHA - mostly women and children.
More than US$1.9 billion is needed to meet humanitarian needs in the Sahel this year, up from 1.7 billion in 2013 and 1.6 billion in 2012, OCHA reports.
As of 17 October, OCHA's Strategic Response Plan (SRP) appeal was just 39 percent funded. An additional $300 million has been pledged outside the SRP towards Sahel projects, bringing the total funded appeal to an estimated 50 percent.
"Over a billion dollars has been committed towards the Sahel thus far, but the bottom line is, the numbers keep going up and so our budget keeps going up as result," Piper said. "It is clearly insufficient for the task this year and has forced us to make some severe cuts in some parts of some programmes," Piper said.
This includes reducing rations to refugee groups, suspending assistance to pregnant and lactating mothers in certain countries, and making choices between urgent lifesaving measures and important, but often overlooked preventive long-term needs, such as investment in water and sanitation programmes.
"There is a growing body of people across the region that are so acutely vulnerable, that it only takes a small push for them to go from just coping to crisis," Piper said. "This represents a humanitarian crisis but also a governance crisis and also much more profound structural development challenges. So it's these issues that need to be addressed successfully in order to start turning these trends around."