While it is clear that Senegal was one of the eight Sahelian countries to be hit by poor rains in 2011, unlike most of its neighbours, the government has not yet declared that parts of certain regions are suffering drought conditions. This low-profile approach is slowing down donor and aid agencies’ preparations and responses to help pastoralists and farmers get through the lean season.
Some 10 million people across the Sahel are expected to face food insecurity this year, according to the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA).
“The government is aware that there are pockets of drought, but unfortunately because of elections they are not doing enough about it,” said Abdou Aziz Diallo, president of the Senegalese Red Cross in Dakar. “The elections make the whole response sensitive - we’re a bit blocked.”
Presidential elections, which have been immersed in controversy as to whether or not it is constitutionally legal for incumbent President Abdoulaye Wade to run for a third term, are planned for 26 February.
Some 850,000 people are, or will imminently be, food-insecure in Senegal with the lowland northeast agro-pastoral and central pastoral zones most affected, according to a joint assessment by the government National Council of Rural Executives (CNCR), the UN Food and Agriculture Organization, the UN World Food Programme, the Senegalese Red Cross and NGOs.
Some 21 departments (out of 45) in six of the country’s 14 regions have been severely affected and are in need of immediate help, according to the assessment.
Global acute malnutrition rates - the total level of acute malnutrition among under-fives - ranges from 10 to 14 percent in the departments of Matam, Diourbel, Kolda, Louga, St Louis and Thiès departments, with Matam’s 14 percent rate just shy of the World Health Organization’s 15 percent emergency threshold, according to yet-to-be official results of a government assessment (from the Food Security, Nutrition and Child Survival Department) sponsored by the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF).
Mamadou Fall Diop at the government’s Civil Protection Unit told IRIN the government will make a statement on the situation, and invite international groups to act “soon” but said he doubted this would occur before the elections, as everyone is focused elsewhere.
In 2008 the government announced an ambitious agricultural self-sufficiency programme, GOANA, and it is difficult - and potentially politically risky - for some in the government to admit to widespread food insecurity just two years later, said the Red Cross’s Diallo.
While rains were the leading cause of poor harvests, in 2011 distribution of seeds and fertilizers to farmers as part of the GOANA scheme came late, “causing problems”, added an agricultural analyst.
However, the government is starting to mobilize - just quietly, said Doctor Mbayadian, director of nutrition at the Ministry of Health in Dakar, noting: “The elections make it sensitive to expose our work.” The Ministry of Health is starting to train health clinic staff in Matam and Diourbel (in the northeast and centre-west respectively) in how to treat malnourished children, while UNICEF is providing the therapeutic food required.
In parts of the north, local authorities have distributed small amounts of grain to affected areas and in some places are trying to replenish grain stocks, according to the Senegalese Red Cross.
The greatest risk to the government, said a high-level humanitarian official in Dakar who preferred anonymity, would be if the government does not act on a wide enough scale. “That is a real risk - to be one of the only states across the Sahel that does not sufficiently respond to its people when they are suffering.”
Mamadou Diagne, a farmer in the village of Ndoye Diagne in the north, 17km from the city of St Louis, told IRIN “absolutely nothing” of last year’s harvest remains, “it is all gone.” He has been borrowing sugar and rice from local tradesmen which risks pushing him into dangerous levels of debt. “There is nothing left for us to use or sell… Somehow we will repay them after this year’s harvest,” he told IRIN.
In a good year farmers and pastoralists face lean times from April to June, but many are already running out of grain stocks, heading south in search of pasture for their animals, flocking to cities in search of odd jobs, and reducing the quality of the food they eat.
In Ndoye Diagne, farmers could only produce cabbages and onions - at lower than usual rates given the erratic rains. Pasture is low already, villagers are already running out of food and the price of basic foods such as rice is 50 percent higher than in 2010; while across the country millet prices are 30-100 percent higher than in 2010, according to the inter-agency assessment.
Some villages have been nearly emptied altogether, according to the International Federation of the Red Cross (IFRC), citing Diakassdé in the north - once a prosperous centre for herders and farmers but now with empty granaries and no pasture; just a few sheep and a few families remain. “We sell our cattle to survive and at the rate we are going there will be nothing left for us. The next harvest is too far away,” resident Salif Sy told IFRC.
Donors and UN agencies are for the most part waiting for the government’s invitation for help, though several representatives told IRIN they were planning their response, with some weaving humanitarian activities into their long-term development projects.
Meanwhile, NGOs and the Red Cross movement are freer to act more openly.
NGO Oxfam America is considering a cash transfer programme for pastoralists and farmers in Louga. IFRC and the Senegalese Red Cross are distributing cash grants, food, seeds, tools and fertilizers in six departments: St Louis, Podor, Matam, Ranérou, Kanel and Dagana.
But they do not have enough money to work to the scale that they need and want to, said Cheikh Seye Dienj, Red Cross coordinator in St Louis. Out of an estimated 34 villages in need, the Senegalese Red Cross is able to respond in just four, and may be able to help just 100 families. “We can’t help everyone,” he pointed out.