Sahel: Good harvest expected, but food security problems remain

Dakar, 11 September 2003 (IRIN) - Heavy rainfall across the Sahel should lead to bumper harvests throughout the region this year from Senegal to Chad. But experts at the UN World Food Programme have warned that even so, many people are likely to go hungry and will still need food aid.

Mamadou Diouf, an international consultant on food security and contingency planning at WFP’s regional office for West Africa in Dakar, said about 300,000 people trapped by extreme poverty in southern Mauritania would continue to rely on WFP food handouts over the coming year. So too would thousands more living in a belt of misery and neglect that extends southwards into western Mali and eastern Senegal.

“There is no infrastructure to promote any kind of development in these regions,” he told IRIN in an interview. “No roads, no health services, no schools.”

Diouf also warned that Mauritania could suffer much wider food shortages over the coming 12 months if presidential elections due on 7 November led to political instability or conflict.

Mauritania, a mainly desert country of 2.5 million people, has been ruled with an iron hand by President Maaouiya Ould Sid’Ahmed Taya for the past 19 years. But Ould Taya narrowly survived a coup attempt in June and faces a strong challenge in this year’s poll from former president Mohamed Khouna Ould Haidallah, the man he overthrew in a 1984 coup. The opposition has accused Ould Taya of manipulating previous elections and has expressed doubts that there will be a clean poll this time.

Diouf also highlighted the danger to food security of possible conflict in Guinea-Bissau. This chaotically governed country, which emerged from a civil war five years ago, faces parliamentary elections on October 12. The poll has been delayed four times already this year and the penniless government has not paid most of its civil servants for several months.

The WFP planner warned: “If the results of these elections are disputed and there is fighting and conflict, all the preparations we have in place will mean nothing. If people cannot cultivate the land because there is no security, they will not plant.”

However, the overall picture in the drought-prone Sahel is much brighter than it has been for a long time. Diouf said that right across the region, the rains which began in June, have been heavier than the average for the past 30 years. In some areas, such as Matam in northeastern Senegal, they have been up to 50 percent heavier than usual.

The expert said that providing the rains continue until late September or mid- October, the region should harvest abundant crops of millet, sorghum, maize, rice, groundnuts and cotton in October and November.

The often nomadic herders of cattle, sheep and goats in the drier north of the Sahel, on the southern edge of the Sahara desert, should meanwhile benefit from lush pastures and a rise in the water table that will replenish wells, he added.

The heavy rains, which meteorologists have linked to a disruption of world weather patterns caused by the emergence of a warm water El Nino current off the coast of Peru at the end of last year, should also leave plenty of pools for watering livestock.

Diouf noted that this year’s rainfall pattern in the Sahel was very similar to that of 1962/63, when a warm El Nino current also displaced the cold Humbolt current that usually runs up the Pacific coast of South America.

The first official estimates of this year’s harvests in the Sahel are due to be published by the Niamey-based Inter-State Committee to Fight Drought in the Sahara, which is generally known by its French acronym CILSS, on 19 September.

But while harvests everywhere should be good, few countries in the region are likely to have much of a food surplus.

Even in a year of regular rainfall, the Sahel only manages to produce 80 to 85 percent of its food requirements and in some countries the chronic deficit is much bigger. The arid Cape Verde Islands, 450 km west of Senegal, seldom manage to produce more than 13 percent of the food needed to sustain their 300,000 inhabitants.

Diouf acknowledged the risk that crops may be washed out by flooding in some areas of the Sahel or devoured by swarms of desert locusts or flocks of grain-eating quelea birds in others. But he said there was a good early warning system in place to detect swarms of locusts forming in the desert and spray them before they got out of hand, and traditional bird scaring methods should limit bird damage to swamp rice in the river valleys.

“The threat is there, but the likelihood of serious problems developing is quite small,” he said.

Diouf said he was more concerned that widespread flooding could lead to epidemics of cholera and dysentery and malaria.

“These are things we really have to be afraid of. However, if the harvest is good, the food security situation will be stabilised,” he said.

Diouf is optimistic that grain stores across the region will be filled and that many farmers will have surplus food left to sell for cash.

The only danger will be that if everyone wants to sell their excess millet at the same time, no-one will get a decent price for their crop.

Mauritania, however, is likely to remain the main recipient of WFP emergency food aid in the Sahel and the main cause for concern.

Jacques Roy, another emergency planner with the WFP in Dakar, said the latest studies showed that 19 percent of the country’s population suffers from acute malnutrition, compared to an average of 10 percent for Sub-Saharan Africa.

“There are 300,000 people there who have been receiving heavy food aid for the past two or three years and are still in a bad way,” he told IRIN .

Most, he said, were concentrated in the Aftout Triangle, an area 500 km southeast of the capital Nouakchott near the border with Senegal and Mali.

Over the past year, WFP distributed food to 420,000 people in Mauritania. The country accounted for 80 percent of its emergency food handouts in the Sahel.

Senegal is meanwhile looking forward to bumper harvests. President Abdoulaye Wade said on Tuesday that maize production should beat the government’s target by 50 percent to reach 500,000 tonnes this year. And the country’s main cotton processing company, SODEFITEX, said it anticipated a record cotton crop that would beat the 1998/99 high of 50,000 tonnes.

However, addressing a conference on school feeding programmes, Wade noted soberly that Senegal’s 10 million population would continue to rely heavily on the 600,000 tonnes of rice which the country imports each year and lamented the fact that his people preferred to eat this to cereals which could be grown more easily at home.

Theme (s): Food Security,


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