Humanitarian aid chief urges immediate action as 7 million face food shortages ahead of further anticipated shortfalls
* guardian.co.uk, Wednesday 7 December 2011
Africa's Sahel region faces a severe food shortage next year because of erratic rainfall and localised dry spells, the EU commissioner for humanitarian aid crisis response has warned.
Kristalina Georgieva said investing in the Sahel now was not just the ethically and morally right thing to do, but would be less expensive than waiting for disaster to strike, as was the case in Somalia.
Seven million people are already facing shortages in Niger, Chad, Mali, Mauritania, Nigeria and Burkina Faso, with major shortfalls in food production in many areas. The figures point to a massive problem of food availability next year, according to the European commission.
The commission last month increased humanitarian funding to the Sahel by 10m euros, on top of the 45m euros it has given to the region this year. Niger and Mauritania have already declared a crisis, prepared national action plans, and appealed for international help.
Most of the population in the Sahel is heavily dependent on rain-fed agriculture and livestock for survival. The poor 2011/12 growing season in the region, which has experienced erratic rainfall followed by localised dry spells, has caused alarm. Increased world market prices for rice are expected to have a negative impact on rice import levels and on prices in west Africa. As a consequence, the EU fears many of the poorest households will be unable to get their hands on enough food.
Georgieva expressed her frustration with the international community's inability to respond in timely fashion to crises. "Too often the massive response comes when the crisis is already deepening and on the six o'clock news," she said. "We have to be ready to act independently of the news cycle."
That sense of frustration came through clearly in the crisis in east Africa, where the early warning systems foretold drought – the worst in some areas for 60 years – but the international response was tardy. Georgieva said the crisis in the Horn of Africa, where 13 million people were in need of emergency help, is expected to last at least until the spring and perhaps the summer. But the number at risk of dying from hunger has fallen because of the massive international response.
Despite the problems of access posed by al-Shabaab, the Islamist insurgents in Somalia, Georgieva said relief efforts from Turkey, the Arab League and other Muslim countries had made a big difference. The EU commissioner, however, expressed concern at the long-term spillover effects from the Somalia crisis, with Somali refugees fleeing to Ethiopia, Djibouti, Yemen and Kenya, where some 450,000 have found shelter at the world's largest refugee camp in Dadaab, on the border with Ethiopia.
"As long as Somalia is unstable, the people who have left will not go back," said Georgieva.
The EC's funding for the Sahel is being spent on food supplies, mobile clinics to identify early signs of malnutrition, and cash transfers for women.
"I was in Niger recently and asked a man whether he was upset that money was going to women," said Georgieva. "He had a big smile on his face and said it was a good idea because if the money was given to him he would have bought a bicycle."
Fuelling concerns about the Sahel are prospects for surrounding countries, including Nigeria, where harvests are expected to be poor, depriving the region of buffer stocks.
Georgieva emphasised the importance of taking preventive measures against drought. Citing the example of the Moyale district in northern Kenya, she said simple techniques such as water harvesting – collecting rainfall on roofs – and reducing livestock numbers had prepared the people well for this year's drought.
"One of the most valuable lessons from Kenya is that long-term initiatives on drought resistance pay off," said Georgieva.
The EC says its funding for the Sahel means the most vulnerable households in the worst affected areas will be protected at the onset of the "lean" period, three months from now. In the longer term, the Sahel is expected to come under increased pressure from climate change.
According to a UN environment programme study released yesterday, the visible consequences of climate change include increased competition for freshwater and land among fishermen and farmers, leading to tensions and conflict. The destruction of crops due to droughts has forced farmers to migrate, caused a rise in food prices, and displaced people. The study called for more investments in climate change adaptation policies to prevent conflict in the region.