West Africa: Security crisis and food crisis

Laurent Bossard, Director of the Sahel and West Africa Club (SWAC) Secretariat. A shortened version of the article is available in French on Le Monde Afrique

“The outlook is good”, concluded food security experts who reviewed the food and nutrition situation in the Sahel and West Africa at the 31st annual meeting of the Food Crisis Prevention Network (RPCA), held from 14-15 December 2015 in Dakar. The region recorded a cereal crop production of 63.6 million tonnes, an increase of 5% over the previous season and 12% over the average of the last five campaigns. Tuber production is estimated at 158.6 million tonnes, up 8% and 18% compared to last season and to the five-year average respectively. Only Chad recorded a decline in its food production, with a decrease of 12%. Markets are generally well supplied, and the availability of food products is all the more satisfactory with new harvests arriving. In spite of the difficult and late start to the 2015-16 agro-sylvo-pastoral campaign, “the sky has shown mercy on the Sahel and West Africa”, a region where agriculture still largely depends on rainfall.

Despite this excellent agricultural performance, the Network notes – as it does every year – that malnutrition remains a major challenge for the region: between January and October 2015, almost a million children have been detected and treated for severe acute malnutrition. Whether harvests are good or bad, each year the region has to manage between 3 and 5 million people experiencing food insecurity. The region faces chronic food and nutrition insecurity. Rates of global acute malnutrition (GAM) in the Sahel have exceeded the 10% warning level at least since the beginning of this century. In many areas, they regularly exceed the emergency threshold of 15%.

According to the 2013 State of the World’s Children report, about 39% of children under five in the Sahel are stunted. “Whether the granaries are full or empty is of no interest to a 6-month-old baby,” recalls Noël Marie Zagre, regional adviser in nutrition for the UNICEF West and Central Africa Regional Office. He deplores the fact that the rate of exclusive breastfeeding remains low in the Sahel countries (around 40%) while stressing the importance of the first 1 000 days for the cognitive and physical development of infants. Nutrition does not depend solely on food security, but also on many other factors such as health, education, poverty that limits access to food, weak social protection systems, etc.

As we approach the next lean season in the Sahel, from June to August 2016, the situation is expected to become even more dire than usual, particularly in areas affected by insecurity. Indeed it is insecurity that this year could be the primary cause or decisive aggravating factor for acute malnutrition. Around 10.5 million people could face a food crisis, including 5.2 million in northern Nigeria. The entire perimeter of Lake Chad – vulnerable to attacks by Boko Haram – is at risk due to the high numbers of displaced persons and refugees, 1.7 million according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), including 1.4 in Nigeria alone. In the Diffa region in southeast Niger, border villages have been deserted and 150 schools closed. Grain prices have increased sharply due to transport difficulties and a very weak millet harvest around Lake Chad. The food and nutrition situation is also strained in northern Mali. The United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) reported in early November that the prevalence of global acute malnutrition in the Timbuktu region has increased from 14.8% to 17% (the emergency threshold is 15%).

Response plans are under preparation, both by the countries concerned and at the international level. But will they help reach those who desperately need it? Will humanitarian workers be able to venture into north-eastern Nigeria, and more generally around Lake Chad? Will the restoration of state authority, as expected throughout the entire territory of northern Mali, be sufficient to allow for the delivery of emergency aid to the north? Another cause for concern: the collapse of international oil prices, which translates into drastically reduced budgetary resources in Nigeria and Chad. Allocations for social programmes benefiting the most vulnerable are likely to suffer, since at the same time, the fight against terrorism requires increasingly significant financial means.

Security crisis and food crisis work in tandem to undermine the resilience of millions of West Africans. They feed off each other. Yet the security responses and humanitarian responses are still designed and implemented separately.

Useful links

For more than 30 years, the Food Crisis Prevention Network (RPCA) has brought together all food and nutrition security stakeholders in the Sahel and West Africa. It relies on the political and technical leadership of ECOWAS, UEMOA and CILSS and benefits from the support of the Sahel and West Africa Club Secretariat (SWAC/OECD).

WARI magazine/TV5 Monde on the 31st RPCA annual meeting

Hunger: The fifth season

Famine killed 1 million people in Ireland in the 19th century

Spring, summer autumn, winter, hunger. Niger has an official fifth season, running from mid-June to late September. It’s the time when last year’s food stocks are depleted and this year’s aren’t available yet.

It’s been like that for centuries, and the population, whether nomadic herders or farmers growing rainfed crops, has strategies to cope. But they can only cope with so much. This year the hunger season arrived early, after a particularly harsh drought destroyed last year’s crops and pastureland.

Nearly 12 million of the country’s 15 million people are now suffering from food insecurity, and child malnutrition has reached 50% in some areas. Nationwide, almost 400,000 face starvation according to Save the Children, and 1.2 million face “moderate” malnutrition.

Talking about a hunger season makes the famine sound natural, but despite the drought, it isn’t. There is food in the markets, but as the prime minister put it “the purchasing power of the people is very weak”.

This echoes what we wrote here: hunger is a problem of poverty, not scarcity. The World Food Programme also ranks poverty as the main cause of Niger’s vulnerability, pointing out first that the country ranks bottom in the 2009 UNDP Human Development Index, and second that the “donor community” could do a lot more. “To scale up its work in Niger WFP is appealing for US$213 million.  Currently it is less than half funded and faces a shortfall of US$145million.”

Emergency aid is vital in the short term, and so is improving the resilience of farmers. Scientific research can help here. A special feature in this week’s Nature looks at the research into new crops and new farming techniques,. It argues for a second green revolution, implying a realignment of priorities in agricultural research, notably on new crop varieties, as well as lower-tech research into basics such as crop rotation, mixed farming of animals and plants on smallholder farms, soil management and curbing waste.

But experience from a number of countries shows that while the agriculture sector is important, it is highly unlikely to eradicate poverty, and thus hunger, on its own. The objective should be to ensure that people, and countries, can buy enough to eat, not necessarily that they become self-sufficient. 

Useful links 

Article on food security in the OECD Observer

OECD-FAO Agricultural Outlook

Markets, prices and food security: what will the future bring? Background note for OECD ministerial meeting on agriculture