In common with a number of Sahel countries, The Gambia is facing a deteriorating food and nutrition crisis in 2015. At the end of May, ECHO reported that across the Sahel close to 7.5 million people required emergency food assistance1 – a figure of a similar order to the last major regional crisis in the Sahel in 2012, and demonstrating the urgent need for emergency response, particularly as the region enters its annual lean season (typically June to September).
The Gambia – ranked as a least-developed, low-income, food-deficit country with high poverty and low human development – has a predominantly subsistence agrarian economy. Poverty levels remain high, with 55% of the population living on less than USD 2 per day and 18% considered food insecure according to WFP. Rain-fed subsistence agriculture is the main source of livelihood for the majority of the population.
In 2014, The Gambia suffered from both late onset of rains and rain deficits, which led to late maturity of crops and a significant dry spell negatively affecting agriculture, particularly rice fields. Crop production was drastically reduced in comparison to that of the previous season (down 19% according to the Cadre Harmonisé2 ) and against five-year averages, with cereal, rice and groundnut harvests particularly affected. Many Gambian farmers now lack seeds and are unable to replant their fields, while there are also reports of depleted soil fertility, and a prevalence of salinity in rice growing areas.
While markets are functioning and provide enough supply for household consumption, across the country households are affected by low purchasing power due to the poor harvest. Food prices have continued to increase, mainly due to the reduction in cereal production, and the unfavourable exchange rate of the Dalasi against major currencies. From January 2014 to March 2015 there were increases in the prices of coarse grains (millet 28%, maize 44% and sorghum 50%), rice both local (33%) and imported (49%), findo (102%) and of other basic food stuffs.
Livestock in The Gambia are also at risk as a result of the current crisis. Livestock production – normally the second largest source of income in The Gambia and contributing about 25% of annual agricultural GDP and over 5% of total national GDP – has been negatively impacted by the amount and duration of rainfall which has destroyed essential pastures, forage and water for animals. As a result of these factors and drivers, the current food and nutrition security situation is of serious concern.
Acute food shortages will again occur during the lean season from June to September, when households often exhaust their food supply, particularly in times of increased stress or crisis. According to Cadre Harmonisé data collection and analysis, in March 2015 100,763 people in The Gambia were food insecure and required immediate food assistance (all in a state of Crisis/Phase 3), with this figure projected to increase to 178,012 people plus 11,427 refugees from Casamance in June-August 2015 (out of a total population in the Gambia of 1,849,000). In the same period, 521,928 people were projected to be at Under Pressure/Phase 2. 3 Recent discussions between the Gambia Red Cross Society (GRCS) and humanitarian actors in-country, including FAO, WFP and ACF, have indicated that the real situation is considered worse than estimated, according to a view that official figures have tended to be underestimated.
Food insecurity undermines nutrition with current food insecurity in The Gambia is inherently linked with widespread malnutrition which continues to pose a major public health problem. There has generally been an upward trend in the prevalence of acute malnutrition at national level from 6.4% in 2005 to 9.9% in 2012. The already alarming nutritional status of children under five – due to poverty, poor infant feeding practices, the disease burden related to inadequate WASH services, and limited knowledge and low awareness of care givers with regards to essential nutritional and hygiene practices – is worsening in 2015 as a result of increasing household food insecurity and depletion of livelihoods. There is a negative prevalence of both wasting (acute malnutrition) and stunting (chronic malnutrition). According to the UN’s 2015 Humanitarian Needs Overview (HNO) for The Gambia4 , the burden of Moderate Acute Malnutrition (MAM) among children under five is currently estimated at 56,839, while Severe Acute Malnutrition (SAM) is at 10,217 children between 6-59 months based on the 2013 national population census projections and the 2012 National Nutrition Survey in The Gambia conducted by the National Nutrition Agency (NaNA) and UNICEF. The prevalence of malnourished pregnant and lactating women in the reproductive age group (15-49) is estimated at 45,944, while severe acute malnutrition rates are above the WHO ‘serious’ threshold in some areas.
Deteriorating nutrition is exposing young children and women of childbearing age (the most vulnerable groups) to nutritional risks, while worsening food security is causing the poor and very poor to adopt increasingly negative or harmful coping strategies in order to meet their basic food needs, causing sometimes irreversible harm to their means of sustaining their livelihoods. An already difficult situation is reaching its peak as the lean season grips, and food stocks increasingly run dry.