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The Sahel: An evidence base for understanding the current food security situation in the region

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The Sahel region is a climatically volatile zone marked by poverty, structural underdevelopment and chronic food insecurity. Rainfed agricultural production and pastoralism are the two main livelihoods in this semi-arid region. Even in record agricultural production years, such as those of 2005/06 and 2006/07, chronic food insecurity and persistently high malnutrition leave many people in the region vulnerable to shocks. Because the underlying causes of many acute crises in the Sahel stem from poverty and other structural problems, even small shocks can lead to humanitarian emergencies. The USAID-funded Famine Early Warning Systems Network (FEWS NET) offers the following clarifications of the food security situation in the region between May and October 2007, when the region's main cereal harvest begins.

1. What is the current food security situation in the Sahel?

- Food security is satisfactory in most of the Sahel, with above-average availability of and access to cereals and imported goods. The exceptions to this are localized areas of Mauritania and Senegal and Chad, where consecutive years of below-average production and civil insecurity, respectively, have increased food insecurity.

- As a whole, the Sahel produced record cereal harvests during the 2005/06 and 2006/07 production seasons. Cereal production in Burkina Faso, Chad, Mali and Niger during the 2006/07 season surpassed the previous season's production, as well as the five-year average. Resultant increased availability of cereals on urban and rural markets has pushed consumer prices for cereals lower than last year and the five-year average for this time of year. These low prices allow more households to access cereals as the hunger season begins. In addition, corn and other cereals from coastal West Africa continue to flow north into the Sahel, further increasing cereal availability and keeping consumer prices low.

- Good rains in 2006 also improved grazing conditions in the region, leading to improvements in livestock health and productivity. Good livestock conditions have increased demand for cattle from coastal West African countries, and prices for Sahelian livestock are at a three-year high. Although pastoral conditions are deteriorating as the hot season and normal hunger season wear on for pastoralists, pasture conditions remain normal to above-normal in much of the region.

2. Is there now, or will there soon be, a food security crisis in the Sahel?

- FEWS NET does not anticipate a food security crisis in the Sahel between now and the end of the main cereal production season in October 2007. However, localized increases in food insecurity are expected, particularly in parts of Mauritania and Chad.

- While cereal production reached record levels during the last agricultural season, and consumer prices for this time of year remain below-average in much of the Sahel, Senegal and Mauritania - traditionally deficit cereal producers - produced even less cereals this season than last season. As a result, availability of locally produced cereals is below normal levels, and consumer prices for locally produced cereals are higher than last year and the five-year average for this time of year. While price increases will result in localized increases in food insecurity, neither country is expected to experience a food security crisis, even as the normal hunger season moves into full swing. Poor rainfall in parts of Senegal and Mauritania in 2006 limited pasture development and replenishment of water sources, leading to the early migration of some livestock and overgrazing in dry-season pasturelands, reduced access to primary income sources and an earlier-than-normal start to the hunger season in agropastoral households, as well as above-normal competition for food and non-food resources in dry-season migration areas.

- Even in excellent production years, Senegal and Mauritania each import about 40 percent (and, for Mauritania, often between 60 and 70 percent) of their food needs from surrounding Sahelian countries and elsewhere to help close the production gap. Urban and rural markets in these countries are well provisioned with imported cereals, and the prices for imported goods are close to prices for these commodities last year at this time. In Mauritania, restocking of village food security reserves in February and March has improved food availability in rural areas.

- While Senegal will be able to cover the majority of its consumption needs through imports, closing the food gap will be difficult for chronically food insecure populations in Mauritania, as this is the country's third consecutive below-normal production season, which has severely eroded agriculturalists' and agro-pastoralists' asset bases. In addition, higher-than-normal deficit production this year in Senegal - one of Mauritania's major trading partners -reduces regional inflows of imports. Imports from Mali to Mauritania are also below normal this year due to a decrease in the parity between Mauritanian and Malian currencies and renewed Malian export taxes for cereals.

- Acute food insecurity continues in eastern Chad, where, despite record production and below- average prices for cereals in most of the country, civil conflict continues to displace hundreds of thousands of people, disrupt agricultural production and impede the flow of goods from secondary to primary markets. Large-scale humanitarian assistance programs are underway in affected areas.

- Even in the best possible production year, localized areas of food insecurity and high chronic malnutrition rates persist among chronically food insecure populations in all countries in the region, including in the region's most productive zones. Chronic food insecurity leaves populations in these areas vulnerable to shocks, and, in many cases, small shocks can turn chronic issues into acute crises.

3. What is the projected food security situation in the region through the end of the main cereal production season (October 2007)?

- Given the current above-average availability of cereals on local markets and below-average prices for these cereals in most of the region, FEWS NET does not project an increase in humanitarian needs in the Sahel between now and the end of the main cereal production season in October 2007. Given the underlying structural causes of food insecurity in the region, it is anticipated that food insecurity will increase among the most vulnerable populations in localized areas throughout the region, as is normal during the hunger season. However, these localized increases in food insecurity are not expected to require emergency interventions beyond those that are already underway.

- The evolution of food security conditions through the end of the main cereal production season depends significantly on the progression of the June to September rainy season. If the rains are well- distributed and consistent throughout the season, food insecurity will remain localized among the region's most vulnerable populations. However, if poorly distributed and/or inconsistent rains cause a poor start to the 2007/08 production season or dry spells in the middle of the season negatively impact cereal production, traders may retain current stocks or sell them at higher prices, causing food availability on local markets to decrease and prices to increase. This would increase the number of food insecure people in the region and put them at risk for a prolonged hunger season next year.