Burkina Faso + 4 more

Sahel food crisis: Africa's poorest region edges towards famine

Ten million people across the Sahel region of West Africa are facing acute food shortages, according to Christian relief and development agency Tearfund.

Jo Khinmaung, Food Security Adviser for development agency Tearfund, who is just back from Chad, says, 'People are eating wild leaves, roots and tubers straight away, without soaking them in water for a few days because they are so desperately hungry, which is causing all manner of health problems.'

Nearly 8 million people are affected in Niger - almost half the population. This is far worse than the 2005 food crisis in a country where most people rely on farming or herding. In neighbouring Chad, some 2 million need humanitarian assistance, while hundreds of thousands face food shortages in Burkina Faso, Mali and northern Nigeria.

Bad harvests over a number of years mean staple foods like grain have shot up in price by as much as 43 per cent. At the same time, the value of cattle, on which many families depend, has plummeted. To make matters worse and after waiting years for rain, extreme flooding in parts of Chad, Niger and Burkina Faso in July not only washed away homes, but it wiped out crops and any hope of harvest this year.

Recent malnutrition surveys show that over 20 per cent of children under five are acutely malnourished in parts of Chad and 17 per cent across Niger - both above the 15 per cent emergency threshold.

'The youngest children are particularly affected, as evidenced by a steep rise in acute malnutrition across the region. This has long term consequences for children's health as it can stunt their growth,' said Jo Khinmaung.

She added, 'Much of the livestock, on which people depend, have died and carcasses can be seen piled up in the worst affected regions. Families would normally trade their cattle for food - but those that remain are so weak they are not worth enough. This means families have no money, and many people are eating just one meal a day.'

Since last November, when warnings of this imminent crisis in the region were largely ignored, a combination of slow and insufficient funding from international donors and soaring prices has intensified the food crisis.

Jo Khinmaung said, 'With more attention and funding, this crisis could and should have been prevented. What's happening right now in the Sahel is a food crisis that is twice as catastrophic as that see in Niger in 2005. The international community seems to be repeating the same mistakes it made then, by responding with too little and too late.

'Additional resources are needed urgently, particularly for Niger and Chad, to respond to the food crisis, exacerbated by the recent flooding. Over the next year, a costly recovery effort will be required to restore people's health and livelihoods.'

Tearfund's local partner has ensured that food distributions are getting to the most vulnerable, as well as providing seeds for people to plant during the rainy season so that they can have hope of a good harvest this year.