Hunger and Fear in the Sahel of Africa

A drought-ravaged field in the Keyes region of southwestern Mali. Already impoverished families lost their food supply and source of income because of the drought. Credits: WFP/ Daouda Guirou

There is a struggle for survival ongoing for millions of people suffering from hunger in the Sahel region of Africa. The UN World Food Programme (WFP) says that “one child in five in the Sahel dies before the age of five – malnutrition is an associated cause of more than 30% of these deaths.”

The Sahel includes the countries of Mali, Niger, Mauritania, Burkina Faso, Chad, Cameroon, the Gambia, and Senegal.

Drought and conflict have caused food shortages, and families can survive only with humanitarian aid as they await the next harvest. There have been some good rains recently to encourage the growing of food. These same rains have also produced flooding that has impacted over a million people in the Sahel.

Refugee Crisis from Mali Conflict

The Sahel food crisis is also complicated because of a massive flow of refugees from Mali. In Northern Mali there has been fighting between the government and armed extremist groups. As one victim told the director of the UN refugee agency (UNHCR), “Fear pushed me to leave my home. I saw people being killed in front of me when Gossi was taken over by armed groups at the end of June. I did not want to wait for my turn.”

The US State Department is alarmed by the increasing violence in Northern Mali and is urging a resolution to the conflict, stating, “We repeat the call on armed groups in northern Mali to renounce any connection with terrorist groups and enter into legitimate political negotiations on the basis of Mali’s territorial integrity.” There is significant fear of what may lie ahead should the chaos and hunger continue to proliferate in Mali and throughout the region.

The World Food Programme says it is feeding over 200,000 refugees in the surrounding countries. This includes Mauritania which is hosting over 100,000 refugees while struggling with its own hunger crisis.

The charity Save the Children is urging support for the refugees to prevent malnutrition in the camps. The children need food aid and also psychological and educational support to help them deal with the trauma.

Nutrition for Small Children Critical

Nutritional support for the smallest children is crucial in this crisis The lack of food for children under five years of age causes severe and irreversible physical and mental damage. Surveys being conducted right now by aid workers show high acute malnutrition rates in Senegal, Chad, Niger, and Mauritania.

Save the Children says that throughout the Sahel over one million children are at risk of severe malnutrition. A special food called Plumpy’Nut can save the children from the lifetime damage of malnutrition. Save the Children estimates that 1.5 million cartons of Plumpy’Nut are needed in the Sahel but funding is the issue. Aid agencies are voluntarily funded.

School Feeding to Help Communities

Providing food for children at school is a way to boost recovery for entire communities. The food offers an incentive for parents to send children back to school so it accomplishes both nutritional and educational objectives.

The World Food Programme hopes to resume school meals in the coming weeks in several Sahel nations. But will the funding and food supplies be there to allow these important programs to be carried out? In Mauritania, WFP is reporting a slight delay in its school feeding program due to food supply difficulties.

WFP is planning a major expansion of its school feeding in Mali. Aboubacar Guindo of WFP says the expansion will mean doubling the number of students it feeds in the Southern part of the country. He adds that the funding has yet to be secured.

Funding a Key Issue

Aid agencies need support from both governments and the public. What could be more devastating than not enough resources being dedicated to saving lives? WFP reports “a funding shortfall of US$ 300 million” for the region. Also a special operation for logistics in Mauritania remains completely underfunded, which could harm the delivery of aid.

WFP provides not only food but also logistical and technological support to improved aid delivery. The WFP Emergency Telecommunications cluster, for instance, has developed a radio system which will be implemented in Northern Mali to help improve coordination for the relief effort.

Recovery from one major drought is difficult enough. In the Sahel there have been a succession of droughts and the low resistance levels of the communities involved is a major reason for the crisis. Aid agencies are trying to find a way to provide emergency aid but also plant the seed for future food security.

Relief Funds for the Sahel Food Crisis:

Sahel Food Crisis Fund – World Food Programme

Mali Hunger Crisis Fund – Save the Children

West Africa/ Sahel Hunger Crisis Fund – Save the Children

Sahel Food Crisis Fund – Catholic Relief Services

Article first published as Hunger and Fear in the Sahel of Africa on Blogcritics

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