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HOW TO: Prevent the Sahel's next food crisis

DAKAR, 5 July 2010 (IRIN) - Another food crisis is unfolding in West Africa's arid Sahel region, putting 10 million people at risk of hunger. Preventing such a scenario, or even better, avoiding it altogether, would be a noteworthy goal.

Tidiane Ngaido, a researcher at the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI), said early warning mechanisms and crisis prevention and management had made huge advances since the 1970s. "We no longer see catastrophes leading to large-scale migration and death; we now need to assess what works, and what needs to improve."

Yet even in years with average to above-average rainfall, a significant proportion of the Sahel's population is undernourished and some 300,000 children younger than five years die of chronic malnutrition, according to the UN Children's Fund (UNICEF).

"We need to bridge humanitarian and development interventions, and integrate all sectors. Crises are increasingly frequent and complex and go beyond the national and regional level; they need to be dealt with accordingly," said Patricia Hoorelbeke, the West Africa representative of Action Against Hunger/ACF International. The standard responses, or those crafted for past crises, are not a solution, she commented.

IRIN asked several experts and practitioners how to avoid recurring food crises in the region. Here are some of the points they highlighted.

Respond early

Look ahead and respond quickly. "There will always be years where the rains fail and harvests are bad. We are able to assess whether the harvests will be plentiful or meagre at the end of the rainy season. We need to react early with ... cash distribution, food for work, food subsidies or distributions to the most vulnerable so they make it through the lean season." - Dramane Coulibaly, food security coordinator, Permanent Inter-state Committee for Drought Control in the Sahel (CILSS). 

A low productivity
A hectare in Niger produces about a third of what a hectare in Guinea-Bissau delivers.
Source: FAO
Be systematic and talk to the decision-makers.
"We can improve the early warning systems. In Niger the alert was timely, but that was not the case in Chad, where we were still vague in terms of data. The linkage with decision-makers is still missing; we knew from September [2009] that the harvests had failed, but did not act immediately." - Naouar Labidi, regional food security advisor, World Food Programme (WFP).

Include pastoralists. "We tend to focus on cereal production and forget about cattle. We need to assess the production of fodder and the availability of water and, in bad years, support stockbreeders before their livelihood disappears." - Jose Luis Fernandez, regional emergency coordinator, UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO). 

Speak the lingo of the communities. "The information should help farmers decide when to plant. If the seeds are lost because they were planted at the wrong time, farmers have no money to purchase more. We are able to collect and analyze data, but we need to improve how it is shared. Science will only fully serve its purpose when it is shared with the communities in a comprehensible language." - Maboury Diouf, disaster risk reduction officer, International Federation of the Red Cross (IFRC).


Photo: Pierre Holtz/IRIN
“Farmers can not rely on rain.”
Bet on prevention.
"Today's catastrophes are yesterday's unaddressed vulnerabilities. Prevention may not be as sexy as a large-scale humanitarian intervention to draw the attention of donors, but prevention is cheaper than recovery. We cannot eliminate the risk, but we can make people less vulnerable. Floods and droughts happen in other parts of the world without leading to crises; here, the vulnerability is such that even a small hazard creates a large risk." - Carlos Munoz, regional disaster risk reduction advisor, Oxfam UK.

Focus on agriculture

Invest in productivity. Agriculture is the livelihood of 60 percent to 70 percent of Sahelian families, but productivity is low, said the CILSS. The FAO's Fernandez commented: "Even though some states, including Burkina Faso and Mali, have pledged to invest 10 percent of their gross national product in agriculture ... productivity remains very low due to deficient technology, declining land fertility, use of seeds of inadequate quality and quantity, lack of fertilizers, and poor water management."

Be climate-smart. "Farmers can use varieties of rice or cereals that are more resistant to droughts and floods, or help prevent desertification through planting shrubs and trees," Fernandez said.

And water-smart. "Most of the agriculture in the region is rain-fed. Farmers cannot rely on rain. It is crucial to invest in irrigation at a large and small scale," said Coulibaly, of the CILSS.

More on climate change
 INDONESIA: Deforestation leading to fewer resources, more disasters
 CHAD: Green wall starts to grow
 NIGER: Fighting hunger one tree at a time
 AFRICA: Trees "vital for food security"
Remember the markets

Manage the markets. "If a family invests everything in cultivating their land, when the harvests come, they have to sell immediately; if everyone sells at the same time, prices go down,' said Hoorelbeke, of Action Against Hunger/ACF International.

Open the borders. "Markets need to be better integrated at a regional level and barriers to regional trade need to be lifted. We are seeing potatoes rot in regions of Mali while Ivory Coast is forced to import old potatoes from the Netherlands," said Coulibaly.

Diversify to boost local economies. "People need money. Vegetables can be rapidly grown, and a part of the production can be sold, which produces an income," said Fernandez.

Eat locally. "[In the Sahel], we don't produce enough of what we eat: rice! The millions given to rice-producing countries could be invested in our own agriculture. We may still need to import, but we could certainly make our local production more competitive and increase the irrigated areas," said Coulibaly.

Connect the dots. The availability of commodities does not mean that every village has food to eat. Remote areas also need to be accessible by road, Fernandez pointed out.

And the most vulnerable

Cash is crucial. "There is food on the markets, but people have no money to buy it. This is a poverty problem. The poorest families can never eat and there is no social security net; there is no such thing as insurance or subsidies for farmers either. Sustainable livelihoods have to be developed," said Hoorelbeke.

More on food security
 GLOBAL: The food benefits of a command economy
 GLOBAL: Working on how to feed the world in 2050
 In depth: Food Crisis; Status and Impacts
Managing the cash is also crucial. Large sums received as remittances need to be used more strategically, said IFPRI's Tidiane Ngaido. "Everyone receives money, but it is immediately spent to buy basics such as medication, rather than being invested in increasing long-term productivity. Social security comes from the diaspora rather than the government."

Develop efficient land policies. "Land access is a problem in some countries. The land of some of the poorest [people] is too small to allow them to produce enough, and they have to work on other people's farms. Women cannot always own land," said Fernandez.

Implement universal healthcare. "Healthcare needs to be free for children below five [years of age] and pregnant and lactating women. When the health system functions, a crisis response can be quickly set up. Now, people will not even go to health centres because they think they will have to pay," Hoorelbeke told IRIN.

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Theme (s): Early Warning, Economy, Environment, Food Security, Governance, Health & Nutrition,

[This report does not necessarily reflect the views of the United Nations]

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