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WEST AFRICA: Sahel the danger zone for food insecurity

DAKAR, 27 October 2011 (IRIN) - Erratic rains and high imported rice and wheat prices against a backdrop of chronic food insecurity and malnutrition in parts of the Sahel, will leave millions of people at risk of food insecurity, according to the latest crop assessments.

“We are definitely going to have a difficult year,” said Patricia Hoorelbeke, West Africa head of NGO Action Against Hunger (ACF), adding that the NGO is considering expanding its food and nutrition programmes in the region.

Food production

Food production is expected to be lower than usual in parts of western Niger, Chad’s Sahelian zone, southern Mauritania, western Mali, eastern Burkina Faso, northern Senegal and Nigeria, according to a report by the World Food Programme (WFP) and the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), and a separate assessment by USAID’s food security monitor FEWS NET.

Tahoua and Tillabéry in central and northwestern Niger respectively are expected to see significantly reduced outputs, according to FEWS NET.

In most of the above-affected areas the rains either started too late or too early, or were unevenly distributed.

Cereal production is expected to reach 43-52 million tons for the region, near the 2009 average, according to FEWS NET. More precise figures will be known in mid-November once the harvest is collected.

Pastoralists

Pastoralists are expected to fare better than they did last year, when hit by drought in the Sahel, but in some agro-pastoralist zones, rains have been delayed, which could lead to poor pasture levels, according to the WFP/FAO report.

“We are worried because these irregular rainfalls have occurred in very vulnerable areas where people’s resilience is already very weakened,” said livelihoods specialist at WFP Jean-Martin Bauer. Many Sahelian households live in a state of chronic food insecurity, he said. “They are the ones with no access to land, lost livestock, without able-bodied men who can find work in cities - they are particularly affected by a decrease in production.”

A government-NGO April 2011 study in 14 agro-pastoral departments of Niger noted that pastoralists with small herds lost on average 90 percent of their livestock in the 2009-2010 drought, while those with large herds lost one quarter. Those who had lost the bulk of their assets have already reduced the quality and quantity of food they are consuming.

The Niger government and partners are currently studying the food insecurity situation, so more will be known soon, he said, adding that it is clear the government will need to carry out some kind of emergency food distributions and food subsidies imminently.

Nutrition

Parts of the Sahel year-on-year experience global acute malnutrition rates that surpass emergency thresholds. A third of the population of Chad is chronically undernourished, regardless of the rains or size of the harvest; and more than 50 percent of the population in Niger suffers from food insecurity, with 22 percent extremely food insecure, according to the World Bank in 2009.

Global acute malnutrition in parts of the Sahelian zone of Chad was on average 15-20 percent over the past five years, and could reach 25 percent this year, according to ACF’s Hoorelbeke.

Returnees from Libya

The return to Niger and Chad of migrants from Libya who previously sent money home to help mitigate crop deficit is already pushing some families into further food insecurity, according to the International Organization for Migration (IOM). “These returns have aggravated extreme poverty and hunger which is affecting more than half of Niger's 2.5 million people threatened with food insecurity this year,” said IOM.

While international attention and government involvement has been relatively high in Niger compared to the devastating drought of 2005, Oumarou Lalo Keita, principal adviser to the prime minister, said international agencies have been slow to respond to government appeals for increased aid over recent months as a result of the return of some 90,000 migrants from Libya. “There is clearly cause for concern,” he said. Following the 2009-2010 drought, the country does not have sufficient emergency food stocks, he said. “We experience difficulties year-on-year, and there is still a gap between needs and the support we receive.”

While governments and aid agencies in West Africa are for the most part well-versed in responding to food insecurity, readiness and capacity is still low in some areas.

Part of the Chadian Sahel and eastern Burkina Faso are not receiving as much international attention, said ACF’s Hoorelbeke. “Chadian Sahel is hardly covered - there are not enough agencies there… If there is a situation that we hear very little about, it is eastern Burkina Faso, where we are likely to see a real problem this year,” she told IRIN.

However, even were more money available, many Sahelian governments lack the capacity to absorb it, notes a report just out by the Sahel Working Group entitled Escaping the Hunger Cycle: Pathways to Resilience in the Sahel.

Some Sahelian countries, such as Mali, have built up decent emergency buffer stocks following a good 2010 harvest, according to food security analysts. But region-wide, more food security stocks are needed as promised in the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) agricultural policy, says the Sahel Working Group.

Some governments, such as Senegal, are trying to reduce dependency on international rice markets by boosting their own self-sufficiency. However, boosting agricultural production is only one of many interventions required to boost food-security. Intervening to improve access to food, is equally important, particularly for those who do not work in agriculture - the very poor, pastoralists, urban dwellers and others.

Costly food imports

Some 40 percent of West Africa’s rice consumption is imported, according to WFP’s Bauer. The Thai government’s recently-issued policy to raise the minimum price guaranteed to farmers has produced tensions on the international rice market. One ton of top quality Thai rice, which is a reference on the food market, has already gone up from US$380 dollars in September 2010 to $495 in September 2011. With the terrible floods currently affecting Thailand, prices should continue to rise, say experts.

Most likely to be affected in West Africa are Senegal, Guinea, Liberia, Sierra Leone, Guinea Bissau and other coastal states.

International wheat prices have also risen since June 2011 because of poor wheat prospects in the USA. The cost of US wheat was up 24 percent in August 2011 from its August 2010 level, according to FAO’s September Global Food Price Monitor.

Imported wheat counts for two-thirds of grain consumption in Mauritania: in the capital, Nouakchott, prices have risen by 50 percent since this time last year; while in the desert town of Ouadane in the central-north, wheat prices are at record highs. Even before wheat prices shot up, one in five households was food-insecure in the south, according to the Commission for Food Security and humanitarian partners, and 8 percent had already reduced the amount of food they were eating.

Regional markets also require close monitoring, say market analysts. High rice prices in Guinea this year, for instance, drew many of Liberia’s and Sierra Leone’s rice producers to export there, leaving significant grain deficits in Liberia, and a 38 percent price rice since 2010 in urban areas.

The Niger government is working hard to ensure that its local harvest stays predominantly in-country so as not to repeat the problems faced in 2005 when the strength of the Nigerian currency (the naira) against the CFA franc meant Niger and Chad sold more cereals to Nigeria. The naira rose against the CFA in September. However, government interventions to protect markets are also a “double-edged sword”, said adviser to Niger’s prime minister Keita, as it encouraged neighbouring states to do the same, stagnating the market.

Existing safety nets and food aid are inadequate to cope with the spikes in food prices caused by droughts or international markets that the region has experienced in recent months, says the Sahel Working Group. A far more robust regulatory framework is needed to help protect food security, despite market volatility.

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Theme (s): Aid Policy, Food Security, Health & Nutrition, Sahel Crisis,

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

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