Poor markets mean hunger in year of plenty

The Sahel zone of West Africa had one of its best cereal-growing seasons on record last year, but pockets of food shortages are already being found in most countries in the region and experts warn that widespread food shortages could begin earlier than usual this year.

Over 15 million tonnes of cereal was produced across the Sahel region in the 2006-2007 growing season, around two million tonnes more than is needed to feed the 50 million people that live there, according to data released on Monday by the Sahel and West Africa Club at the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD).

Including production in Chad, Mali, Mauritania, Niger and Burkina Faso, 19 percent more cereal was grown in 2006-2007 than was the average for the five years before.

The high overall figure hides the fact that some countries and regions are already experiencing food shortages, said Jean Zoundi, head of the Sahel Club's Rural Transformation and Sustainable Development unit in Paris.

"You can have a good growing season one year but still have at-risk zones the next because the problems are structural," Zoundi said. "Many people are still at risk because they have low incomes and a lot of problems getting access to the markets even if the supply is good, and that's not linked to the fact that we have a good season or not."

Every year the Sahel region experiences emergency levels of under-nutrition and hunger as well as epidemics of malaria, tuberculosis, cholera and meningitis. The United Nations says that of the 550,000 children who die in the Sahel every year, over 50 percent succumb from causes related to under-nutrition, meaning they would not die if they were not under-nourished.

Zoundi said that in 2007 many families and villages across the Sahel are expected to start running short of food months earlier than usual, even if there is a surplus in the region.

Last year's food stocks will start running out in many areas by May, he predicted, three months before the first rains, and five months before the first crops of maize are expected to be brought in.

Areas at risk

In Burkina Faso, which accounted for more than half of the regional surplus, there are already "at-risk" zones of short supply in several departments in the north, centre and east of the country. In Niger, another strong producer of cereals, pockets of hunger exist in the regions of Tilaberi, Tahoua and Agadez, the Sahel Club said.

In Mauritania, where cultivatable land is decreasing and around 70 percent of the food eaten is imported or donated from abroad, cereal production was actually 7.7 percent lower last year than the average of the five years before, the World Food Programme (WFP) warned, citing data from the Food and Agricultural Organisation (FAO).

The people most at risk are in the south of the country, in the regions of Trarza, Brakna, Guidimakha and Gorgol. There acute malnutrition rates are more than 10 percent, which is above the World Health Organisation's emergency threshold, WFP said.

WFP on Tuesday launched an appeal for US$14.4 million to fund WFP feeding programmes in Mauritania for some 165,000 people, including 68,000 children.

"Movement of large amounts of food supplies in the region doesn't necessarily happen unless there is a financial gain for those trading," said Marcus Prior, WFP spokesperson in West Africa.

According to the Sahel Club's data, Mauritania had a deficit of 83,300 tonnes between what it grew in 2006-2007 and what its 3.2 million people need. Agricultural experts say the rice failed in many areas along the Senegal River, and crops inland under-performed.

Senegal is even worse off. It has a 187,100-tonne deficit between
production and requirements. Food experts blame a poor growing season in the north of the country last year, and poor rice production because the Senegal River did not flood the paddies sufficiently. Rains were also insufficient in several inland areas of Senegal last year.

Chad was also flagged as being a country of "concern" because of food shortages in the Kanem area and throughout the east of the country where there is currently widespread fighting.

Agricultural experts say areas of Mali also had a poor growing season. This is compounded by problems in the regions where people usually grow cotton to sell for cash to buy food, because of difficult world markets for African commodities.

Markets needed

Zoundi at the Sahel Club said the problem of redistributing regional cereal production is one of the "main problems" facing governments in the Sahel.

"This year the main problems are storage [of the produce] and how to facilitate markets. We are in a situation of having a good year for cereals and food production, but that shows the need for a mechanism to make sure at risk populations can have access to food," he said.

The problem of regulating markets is complicated by the need to both keep prices low to maximise the number of people who can afford to buy food, while keeping prices high enough to provide an incentive to people to start replanting their fields later in the year, Zoundi added.

nr/cs