Farming households in Mauritania face imminent famine

Originally published
The Famine Early Warning Systems Network (FEWS NET) issues periodic emergencies when population groups are now, or will soon become, extremely food insecure, unable to meet their consumption needs.

These groups have already exhausted their strategies for acquiring food and face imminentfamine.

Issued September 12, 2002
Valid until October 11, 2002

Following meager harvests of rainfed crops in December covering only a fraction of their consumption needs, farming communities across Mauritania face bleak prospects. A freak storm in January killed tens of thousands of livestock on which households depend for making it through the "hungry" season that in many areas started in February, four months earlier than usual. Late, low and erratic rainfall in June and July has delayed the start of the cropping season, possibly for good in some areas. Households have long exhausted their grain reserves and market prices are extraordinarily expensive. Some households get by on small remittance income; others have abandoned their villages in search of work and food. Without urgent help, famine is unavoidable. The situation of herders in southwestern Mauritania, while not nearly as grave, has worsened due to the lack of pasture, deteriorating health of animals and rising costs of animal feed.

Nature and Magnitude of the Problem

Net cereal crop production in Mauritania decreased 11 percent between 2000/01 and 2001/02 to 117,792 MT, equivalent to 25 percent of annual needs for the period, November 2002-October 2003. Assuming the usual level of commercial imposts (almost all wheat), this has left a cereal deficit of nearly 205,000 MT (mostly millet, sorghum and maize), equivalent to more than 5 months of total cereal needs.

In addition, freak rainstorms during January 9-11 caused the death of some 120,000 cattle, sheep and goats; the destruction of about 25 percent of already harvested crops; and the loss of lives and property in the affected areas. Ironically, the rains ruined pastureland for the animals that survived. Poor production, loss of these assets "on the hoof' and the lack of cereal reserves following successive years of low harvests severely weakened the resilience of people to cope with hunger.

WFP mounted an assessment in January to evaluate crop production in certain regions and the impact of livestock losses. At that time, WFP estimated that 250,000 were food insecure in Hodh el Chargui, Hodh el Gharbi, Assaba, Gorgol, Brakna, Trarza and Tagant Regions. In June, the Government's Food Security Commission (CSA/ONASA), WFP/Mauritania and FEWS NEr/Mauritania consider that 1 million of Mauritania's 2.7 million people were food insecure to varying degree. Rainfall has eased conditions for pastoralists in the south-eastern part of the country, but many Mauritanians remain highly and even extremely food insecure.

Click here to view Zones where Farming Groups are Extremely Food Insecure

Food Security Threats to Particular Groups

Three areas and groups are particularly worst-off. Farming households in the Aftout, a resource-poor enclave straddling Brakna, Gorgol, Assaba and Tagant Regions in the southern-central part of the country, have suffered a succession of six poor harvests. Crop production in 2001/02 from harvests starting in November 2001 was sufficient to meet only 2 months of consumption needs; some farmers abandoned their fields earlier this year when it was clear that their crops would fail due to poor rainfall and caterpillar attacks. The painful loss of small livestock in January has made recovery even less likely. Deficit rainfall has reduced access to drinking water. Very few households receive remittance income and their purchasing power is weak. Off the normal trade routes, markets in the Aftout are poorly supplied.

The crop production categories most affected in 2001/02 were irrigated crops (lack of credit for repairing pumps and buying inputs) and flood recession crops (insufficient periods of submersion and attacks by caterpillars) in the Senegal River Valley (parts of Trarza, Brakna, Assaba, Guidimakhs and Gorgol Regions), which registered production drops between 70 and 90 percent; neighboring Senegal experienced equally poor production, reducing imports. In addition, households in the Valley and the pastoral districts of Trarza Region were the hardest hit by the loss of livestock early in the year. While crop production met only 2 months of needs, some farming households receive income from family members in Nouakchott or abroad.

Extremely impoverished Haratin villagers in southern Hodh el Chargui and Hodh el Gharbi are in similar conditions. Crop production covered only 2 months of needs, poorrainfall reduced the availability of wild foods and farming households are extremely indebted to retailers for food staples. Due to poor purchasing power, few imports arrive from Mali. Many have left to work in Mali or gather wild foods there.

Such conditions have pushed some 16,000 farmers in the two Hodhs and 46,000 farmers and herders in the Senegal River Valley and the Aftout into the extremely food insecure category - now or soon unable to meet their consumption needs, having already exhausted their strategies for acquiring food and facing imminent famine.

Other groups are particularly vulnerable to food insecurity. Pastoralists in Trarza and Brakna, who are losing animals anew, have to help surviving but weakened animals to their feet in the morning. The Government has sponsored the sale of spoiled wheat as animal feed, but speculation and high demand have driven the price beyond the reach of small herders. Urban households in Nouakchott, having absorbed large numbers of unemployed relatives fleeing hunger in rural areas, are finding themselves hard-pressed to provide for these newcomers.

Short-term Outlook and Prognosis

People in most rural areas are barely getting by, thanks to vigilant management of small remittances from outside family members, skipping meals and borrowing money against the next harvest whose outcome is likely to be poor. Food is generally scarce in rural markets and when found, expensive to extraordinarily expensive.

In the worst-affected areas, it is possible to walk through darkened villages in the evening without seeing family fires for cooking.

Evidence of malnutrition abounds in the form of exhaustion andloss of weight, night blindness, scurvy, dehydration and diarrhea and hunger-related deaths. While food access usually improves for pastoralist groups during the rainy season when calving rates and milk production increase, the pre-harvest hungry season is hardest on rural farming households, whose seasonal labor requirements are the highest just when food intake is the lowest. For some, these conditions have persisted the past five years.

Rainfed agriculture (especially sorghum) accounts for about one-third of Mauritania's annual cereal production. As most farmers wait until the first sustained rains to plant, the cropping season did not get underway in earnest until late August (when many farmers had to replant after the first rains abruptly stopped), raising doubts whether crops will reach maturity before the rains normally end in late September-early October. The Mauritanian Government (GIRM) considers the rainfed crop is seriously comprised this year. Low-lying land behind dams contributes about one-sixth of annual production but most of this land is dry. Flood recession agriculture has not even started because the Senegal River is still low and has not overflowed its main course. Irrigated rice crops account for one-third of annual production. Yet, cultivated areas have dropped significantly due to multiple constraints including lack of access to production credit by farmer collectives stemming from previous defaults; lack of mechanical equipment, good quality seeds and fertilizers; and an infestation of grain - eating birds.

Prospects for Mauritania's 2002/03 harvest look very poor. The Inter-state Committee to Combat Drought in the Sahel (CILSS) will discuss pre-harvest crop production projections as part of its annual regional review in mid-September. The joint CILSS-FAO-FEWS NET Crop Production and Food Supply Assessment mission will evaluate conditions in October, based on preliminary GIRM production estimates. While waiting for firmer figures, it is clear that Mauritania needs food and other support now.

Responses and Adequacy of these Responses

This crisis has not gone unnoticed or unwarned. FEWS NET/Mauritania issued its first alerts in September 2001 (for the Aftout and the Valley) and December (for the two Hodhs). The Government's Food Security Commission (CSA) issued an appeal to donors and food agencies for 8,000 MT of food aid in January and distributed up to 50 kg of food aid per households in January or February. A regional meeting of the CILSS Prevention and Management of Food Crises (PREGEC) in March confirmed the deficit crop production figures of the Ministry of Rural Development and Environment (MDRE). In April, the Lutheran World Federation, CARITAS and UNICEF coordinated actions to open some 67 Community Feeding Centers (CRCs) comprised of food shops and cereal banks. These CRCs are often overwhelmed by the number of extremely malnourished children and expectant or nursing women who apply for help each month, and run out of food from time to time. In early April WFP approved a $7.5 million Emergency Operation (EMOP) for the distribution of about 16,230 MT of wheat, rice and cooking oil in seven regions to cover the needs of 246,500 people through December.

However, severely insufficient donor contributions have prevented WFP from fully carry ing out this EMOP, reportedly because donors were waiting for an official declaration from the GIRM. Sporadic distribution of food aid by the Food Security Commission has not been sufficient to slow the worsening food insecurity. The earliest relief in terms of crop production and food access won't come for another month when short-cycle sorghum will start forming its grains.

On September 1, the GIRM declared a state of emergency and issued an appeal for 37,000 MT of cereals and 14,000 MT of other foods for emergency distribution to meet the needs of people in the most affected areas for 3 months; 18,000 MT of cereals for sale at subsidized prices for those with a minimum of purchasing power; and 20,000 MT of livestock feed and veterinary support.

Recommendations for Further Action On the food availability (supply) side:

  • Support the GIRM's request for seeds, fertilizer and pesticides and other production inputs in time for garden farming and off-season rice production.

  • Put into effect a temporary moratorium on customs duties on rice and grain imports from Senegal and Mali to quickly encourage imports, replenish border markets and reduce prices.

  • Respond to the GIRM's request for logistical support to the Food Security Commission to enable it to design appropriate operations and carry them out efficiently.

  • Forgive the heavy debts of irrigated farming cooperatives, due to crops losses stemming from 1999 floods, so that farmers may resume their livelihoods and irrigated perimeters resume production.
On the food access (demand) side:
  • Support WFP and GIRM appeals for food aid, giving urgent priority to the extremely food insecure groups, as well as livestock feed to protect herder and farmer-herder livelihoods.

  • Carry out an assessment of household food access to refine the general estimates of emergency food needs under the auspices of the Food Security Commission, CILSS Prevention and Management of Food Aid Crises UNIT (PREGEC), World Food Program, FEWS NET and other agencies.

  • Develop contingency plans by sector or livelihood group now, as this crisis is likely to continue for at least 3 months (until the harvest in December) or as long as 15 months (until the harvest in December 2003), the earliest that some groups can get back on their feet. Such contingency planning needs to specify organizational arrangements, divisions of responsibility and lines of authority and communication. The consequences of not making preparations now are potentially grave for more than 60,000 extremely food insecure people, with fewer and fewer options to fall back on, and up to 1 million moderately to highly food insecure people.
Key Indicators to Monitor

Given the relation between cereal supply (availability) and prices (access), FEWS NET/Mauritania and its partners will expand monitoring of national and sub-national early warning indicators, especially aggregate cereal supplies at national and rural levels and price levels around the country. At the rural and urban household levels, FEWS NET will assess staple food prices and their affordability, as well as terms of trade for the main products, such as kilograms of sorghum per goat or liter of milk. The progress of the main cropping season will be followed closely, especially the rainfed and irrigated sectors. Through its network connections, FEWS NET will watch trends in child malnutrition and rural to urban migration.

FEWS NET is funded by the US Agency for International Development and implemented by Chemonics International Inc. Contact us in Mauritania at HSy or telephone at +222 525 3918. Visit the Mauritanian Country Center on the FEWS NET website at