NOTE: This is a guest blog post from Leila Bourahla, Niger Country Director at Concern Worldwide.
For the third time in less than a decade, the Sahel region of West Africa could once again face a food crisis. The most urgent question now is not whether a response is needed, but when it will happen and at what scale. But perhaps the most important question is: what can we do to reduce the likelihood that we will be having the same conversation, facing the same life-or-death consequences, next year, or the year after?
We saw the deadly costs of delayed intervention last year in the Horn of Africa, where widespread hunger in Ethiopia and Kenya and famine in Somalia led to the deaths of as many as 100,000 people, according to figures collected by the United Kingdom’s Department for International Development (DfID). While the early warning signs from East Africa were far more severe than that from West Africa (in Niger, food production was 10-15 percent below average in 2011, but was an estimated 75 percent below average in Somalia), we should take them no less seriously, particularly when it comes to the value of early and preventative action.
In Niger alone, 2.6 million people today do not have enough food to meet their basic nutritional needs — they are living with hunger on a scale most of us will never experience. The Tahoua region is the most affected, where Concern has worked since 2003 and responded to previous food crises in 2005, 2008, and 2009. And now again in 2012, nearly 24 percent of the population is expected to be facing severe food insecurity. After a poor harvest last year, food supplies are rapidly declining, with many families expecting to completely run out of food by as early as March unless they receive immediate assistance. For communities that raise livestock as their primary assets and source of food, there is less pasture and water to keep their animals –and sole livelihood — alive.
Low food supplies means higher prices for basic staples, such as millet. Cereal prices are now an alarming 40-50 percent higher than they were last year. This, coupled with a loss of income from failed crops and weakened, unhealthy livestock, could make food an unaffordable luxury for Niger’s poorest. In addition to increasing the risk of malnutrition, the rising food prices have other consequences. Children often drop out of school because they need to help their families run the household and earn income. Families may also be forced to sell assets for quick cash or leave rural communities to find work in urban areas and send money home, travelling as far as Libya, the Ivory Coast, and Nigeria.
In response to the clear early warning signs, Concern is rolling out a short-term emergency response program to give the most vulnerable people in Tahoua access to cash so that they can buy food and meet other basic survival needs. The program includes cash-for-work projects, in which Concern will involve more than 3,018 community members from villages in Tahoua to prepare the land for the next agricultural season. Concern will also distribute emergency cash transfers using mobile phone technology and manually, reaching 6,350 extremely poor households. As we get closer to the lean season, Concern is also maintaining “surge capacity” to screen and treat children for malnutrition and to build the capacity of local health facilities to provide emergency nutrition treatment and services.
Photo: Millet is the staple crop that keeps most people alive in Niger, but this year, drought and poor harvests threaten to leave 13 million people in need of emergency food assistance by April. Photo credit: Tim Peek for Concern Worldwide US, Tahoua town, Niger.
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