African drought is inevitable, hunger and starvation is not
Imagine if 18 million Australians were at risk of severe hunger. Right now, this is the reality for the men, women and children of West and Central Africa.
In the Sahel land belt that stretches from Senegal and Mauritania on Africa’s west coast, to Niger and Chad near the continent’s centre, more than 18 million people—equivalent to more than the entire population of Australia’s eastern states—are at risk of going hungry.
The worst of this food crisis is set to continue over the coming weeks. It’s now the hunger season in the region, that time before a new harvest when people’s food stocks become dangerously low.
But this year, the combination of poor rains and skyrocketing food prices means the lean season will be even tougher than usual. As the rainy season takes hold, and people’s dwindling food supplies are further depleted, cases of malnutrition and malaria look set to rise.
Farmers should now be planting their crops, but a lack of seeds and tools—and also disruption due to conflict—means many are simply unable to do so. This is a worrying sign which could mean the next harvest won’t produce enough crops to get people out of the current food crisis and on the road to recovery.
Areas of Mauritania, Chad and Mali have been classified as in extreme food security—one level below famine. Huge swathes of the Sahel remain in a critical condition.
Sadly, it’s an all too familiar story. Just two years ago, the Sahel region was hit by a similar food crisis affecting 10 million people. And this time last year, we were talking about the food crisis in East Africa, and just days away from the declaration of famine in Somalia.
The West Africa food crisis reinforces many of the lessons we have already learnt from past emergencies: things like the the importance of responding to early warnings of a looming crisis, ramping up the response when there are growing humanitarian needs, and acting to prevent a repeat of this hunger pattern in the future.
We know from experience that the earlier we act, the more lives can be saved. Effective early warning systems means the world had plenty of notice of what was to come.
Agencies like Oxfam were warning as far back as last December of a looming food crisis in the Sahel, and we have been working in the region for months providing urgently needed relief including food, water and cash support.
The international community and UN agencies responded early to the warnings, mobilising funds to try to prevent the worst of the crisis. This was positive.
But sadly, it hasn’t been enough to meet the increasing humanitarian needs. There still remains a significant funding gap, with the UN now estimating it needs $1.6 billion for the humanitarian response—up from around $700 million back in January.
The Australian Government has already provided $30 million to the Sahel food crisis, which is to be commended. Oxfam urges Australia—and Australians—to continue its support of people in need in West Africa.
Funding is needed so we can respond to people’s immediate and urgent needs, help them to prepare for the next harvest, and to ensure a speedy and effective recovery. It’s not too late to respond, but we must act quickly.
Ongoing conflict, particularly in the north of Mali, threatens to further escalate the crisis, and there are fears locust swarms could devastate crops in some areas. The onset of the rainy season will also make it harder to get help to people who need it.
At the same time, we must work to make sure future crises can be prevented, and invest in small-holder farmers to boost local food production. Things like new irrigation systems, crops that can survive in low rain conditions, and better roads and transport links, are just some ways that can help.
We also need bigger and better food reserves to ensure there is more supply in times of need, and to help keep prices more stable. And we need stronger social welfare safety nets to help vulnerable people cope, especially in the hard times.
The return on these kind of long-term investments is that we can avoid the worst aspects of these cyclical hunger crises and secure a future where everyone in West Africa has enough to eat. Drought is inevitable in the Sahel, but hunger is not.
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