FEWS Mauritania Food Security Emergency Updated 9 Jan 2003

Situation Report
Originally published

Mauritania: Government and development partners still unable to marshal sufficient aid for numerous households facing famine conditions

Bleak harvest prospects for rainfed crops mean a long lean period (soudure) for most areas of the country hit by the freak storms in January last year. The government's appeal for assistance on September 1 has not produced a major response on the part of its development partners. Food aid from the Food Security Commission (CSA) and World Food Program (WFP), though much appreciated, won't be enough for managing the food crisis confronting farm families in Aftout, the Senegal River Valley and the central plateau area of Hodh El Chargui and Hodh El Gharbi wilaya (regions).

Most agricultural households in these areas have long exhausted their grain reserves. These households have not recovered from last year's January storms that killed the sheep and goats that households rely on as the cornerstone of their traditional coping and survival strategies. Spiraling market prices are limiting household access to staple foods. Wild foods are so scarce that remittances from migrating family members are the only support keeping local residents alive. Famine conditions, which had previously been confined to the Aftout area, have since spread to the Senegal River Valley and the central plateau area of Hodh El Chargui and Hodh El Gharbi, affecting sedentary herders as well as farmers. With harvest prospects for bottomland and walo (flood-recession) crops mediocre at best, grain imports from Mali still extremely limited and virtually no grain imports from Senegal whatsoever, the country's only hope is domestic and international assistance. While national assistance programs are operating at full capacity, international assistance is slow in coming. Many households in the enclave area of Aftout are already experiencing famine conditions, going several days at a time without a regular meal. The improvement in water supplies in the Senegal River Valley and the central plateau area of Hodh El Chargui and Hodh El Gharbi is the only recent development holding off famine in these areas. Conditions for herder households in the Trarza, Brakna and western Gorgol regions raising small ruminant livestock, which had been considered acceptable, were abruptly destabilized by the rapid degradation of grazing lands and mass migration into these areas by herds from the northern reaches of the country.

Nature and Magnitude of the Problem

Net grain production in Mauritania, which has been down several years in a row, can meet only 25 percent of the country's annual needs for the period from November 2002 to October 2003. After adding the usual volume of commercial imports (mostly wheat), Mauritania is able to cover its grain needs for only 5 months. Under normal circumstances, rural households manage this 7 month deficit by relying on their livestock capital (mainly sheep and goats) and on natural products (such as consumption of wild plant foods and sales of charcoal and fuelwood), enduring a diffic ult lean period, but without experiencing an actual famine. However, with the bleak harvest prospects for flood-irrigated (bottomland and walo) crops and widespread poverty among the rural population, it is inconceivable that these household could survive without outside aid. Many such households have exhausted all their resources and are living from day to day, relying on community assistance and expected remittances from absent family members. A freak storm (rain and cold temperatures) of January 9-11 last year killed nearly 120,000 cattle, sheep and goats; rotted already dry pasturelands, and destroyed about a quarter of all harvested crops, causing human fatalities and property losses. The WFP mission in January identified 250,000 people of the Hodh El Chargui, Hodh El Gharbi, Assaba, Gorgol, Brakna, Trarza and Tagant regions of the country as food-insecure. The joint assessment in June by the government's Food Security Commission (CSA/OSA), World Food Program (WFP)/Mauritania and FEWS NET/Mauritania found 1 million (of 2.7 million) Mauritanians experiencing various degrees of food insecurity.

It is clear now that the actual size of the food-insecure population is much larger, with the deterioration in grazing conditions in most agro-pastoral areas of the country. Countless farmers in the southeastern and eastern reaches of the country and growing numbers of sedentary herders previously categorized as extremely food-insecure since September now face a full-fledged famine. The onset of the rainy season improved conditions of herders and certain farmers in the southeastern and eastern reaches of the country to some extent, but countless Mauritanians are still classified as highly if not extremely food-insecure, particularly in the case of farmers who de pend only on rainfed crops. For these people, famine is becoming a reality and the time to act to avoid a catastrophe is now.

The Threat of Food Insecurity Weighs Heaviest on Farming Households

Unfortunately, bleak prospects for dieri (rainfed), walo (flood recession) crops and irrigated crops grown in village-level irrigation systems have been borne out by harvest projections for the 2002-03 crop year by the Programming, Monitoring and Evaluation Office (DPSE) within the Ministry of Rural Development and Environment (MDRE) and approved by the joint mission by FAO/CILSS/WFP. The cereals balance in Table 1 shows an overall cereal deficit of 160,000 MT.

This deficit, which corresponds, at most, to 4 months worth of grain needs for Mauritania's 2,172,000 inhabitants, is generally managed as part of normal coping strategies for making it through the lean period. The difference now is that:

1. The crisis is localized, primarily affecting agricultural zones. Instead of managing a four-month deficit, people in the Aftout, Senegal River Valley and central plateau area of Hodh El Chargui and Hodh El Gharbi have to find some way of covering 9 or 10 months worth of food needs.

2. Having exhausted their traditional coping strategies, extremely food-insecure population groups have no way of managing the current food crisis without outside assistance.

Within these three areas, classified in September as extremely food insecure, the affected population has expanded from farmers to include sedentary herders as well.

Table 1: Projected Cereal Balance for 2002-03 (metric tons)
Poplulation on April 30, 2003
I: Availability in Tons
1. Production
- Gross production
- Net production
2. Opening Stocks
- On-farm
- Others

II: Needs in Tons
Annual consumption norm per person
1. Total human consumption
2. Closing stocks
- On-farm
- Others
176 kg

III: Gross Surplus (+)/Deficit (-) in Tons
IV: Balance after Imports/Exports in Tons
1. Expected commercial Import
2. Expected food aid
3. Expected exports
V: Net Surplus (+)/Deficit (-) in Tons

Crop production from both traditional types of farming systems (dieri and walo crops) in the Senegal River Valley (including parts of the Trarza, Brakna, Gorgol and Guidimakha regions) is virtually nil in the wake of this year's inadequate, erratic rainfall and the short 12-day-long high-water period that usually lasts three or four months. Farmers in this area were unable to make up for production shortfalls by growing irrigated crops due to their inability to get credit to repair pumps and buy inputs. Crop production from the 2001-02 harvest covered only two months of consumption needs and many households owe their survival to remittances from family members living in Nouakchott or abroad. The situation is even worse this year. With the loss of small animals due to the January storms and the lack of wild foods due to this year's drought, the only recourse for farmers in the Senegal River Valley is migration. Fortunately, the generous food aid distributed to households living along the Senegalese side of the river since the end of August (100 to 200 kg of rice per household) has helped ease food insecurity problems on the Mauritanian side, thanks to traditional redistribution practices among family members on both banks of the river. Nonetheless, the October, December and January FEWS NET mission found a troubling rise in malnutrition.

After six consecutive poor harvests, farm families in Aftout, a resource-poor enclave of absolute poverty in the south-central part of the country straddling Brakna, Gorgol, Assaba and Tagant regions, are facing yet another bleak harvest. The only dieri crops at advanced stages of development are found in wadi beds and crop development has been so poor (they are still in the tillering and height growth stages) that some farmers have already begun cutting them down and selling them to herders. There is very little likelihood of any harvests of dieri crops anywhere in the Aftout area. The food crisis in this area will be all the more difficult to manage, given the serious water supply problems faced by local households. Donkeys traditionally used to carry water, oftentimes over distances of several dozen kilometers, have been dying in droves, and rainfall deficits in this area have prevented the replenishment of local groundwater resources.

The people of Aftout are hungry, thirsty and unable to come up with any reliable survival strategies. After a string of poor harvests and no livestock to fall back on after last year's storms, local merchants are less and less inclined to make them any loans.

Aftout also has an isolation problem. The weekly car service is the lifeline through which the emigrant population injects new hope -- and income -- into the area. Whenever the car is late, everyone worries. Thus far, distributions of food aid in this area have been so paltry that villagers have stopped counting on any more. As the case in the Valley, malnutrition rates throughout Aftout are steadily rising. The situation of impoverished Haratin villagers in southern Hodh El Chargui and Hodh El Gharbi is similar to that of the population of Aftout. Harvest prospects for rainfed crops are bleak and the small tracts of land under crops in depressions (bas fonds) rule out any hopes for a sufficient harvest before the next rainy season. The area has been virtually stripped of its work force as both men and women are leaving.

In these three areas, the food security status of sedentary herders has strongly deteriorated. It was already fragile, following last January's storms, but the hike in small ruminant prices (due to the drop in supply and the slight improvement in their physique) improved the market access of sedentary herders. Right now, given the disappearance of pastures, these herders are incapable of relying on their animals as a source of exchange, making them highly food insecure. Without outside help, these sedentary herders will become extremely food insecure over the next several months.

The Famine Threat in Figures

In general, the nationwide food situation is deteriorating.

According to a joint report of trends in food security conditions by the Food Security Commission (CSA) and the Ministry of Health and Social Affairs (MSAS) presented on December 19, between October 2001 and October 2002, the percentage of communes nationwide classified as extremely food-insecure rose from 2 percent to 27 percent, while the percentage of highly food-insecure communes rose from 12 percent to 40 percent and the share of moderately food-insecure communes dropped from 19 percent to 12 percent over this same period. Only 21 percent of communes nationwide were currently classified as food-secure in October 2002, compared with 67 percent in October 2001. Aftout, the Senegal River Valley and settlements of adwaba (an extremely impoverished group) throughout the central plateau area of Hodh El Chargui and Hodh El Gharbi are still being classified as extremely food-insecure. According to recent data (December 19) from CSA, malnutrition indexes around the country appear to be on the rise, based on the findings from a series of nutritional surveys supplemented by data released by the MSAS. Certain parts of the country, such as Aftout, central Tagant, southern Guidimakha, southern Assaba and the Senegal River Valley, are showing increasing evidence of malnutrition. Current malnutrition rates (which are over 20 percent global acute malnutrition) suggest the need for emergency aid. Unfortunately, WFP emergency operations for Aftout and "non-Aftout areas" have not yet started up (though these programs are scheduled to begin shortly). The respite enjoyed by farmers in adwaba settlements in Kankossa and Barkéol Departments (in Assaba), Kobenni and Aïoun El Atrouss Departments (in Hodh El Gharbi) and Djiguenni, Amourj and western Bassikounou Departments (in Hodh El Chargui), whose food security status had been eased from extremely food-insecure to highly food-insecure back in November, was extremely short-lived. Recent surveys show a steep rise in malnutrition indexes, particularly for children and adolescents. Thus, these communities have, once again been downgraded to extremely food-insecure status. The 16,000 farming people in Hodh El Chargui and Hodh El Gharbi identified as food insecure in September, continue to experience extreme food insecurity.

The food security situation of some 36,000 farmers in the Senegal River Valley and Aftout is still deteriorating. These areas are already experiencing famine conditions despite remittances from migrating family members and, on the Mauritanian side of the Senegal River Valley, the leakage of emergency food aid from Senegal.

The food security status of 8,000 sheep and goat herders in Aftout and the Senegal River Valley, which had previously improved, has been deteriorating since the end of December as grazing conditions grow steadily worse. Like cattle herders in the Trarza and Brakna regions of the country, these herders are now being classified as highly food-insecure.

Urban households in Nouakchott who take in unemployed family members drifting to the city from the countryside are finding it increasingly difficult to meet their own food needs. Rising prices for staple foods and other costs are putting these households in the extremely food-insecure category.

Short-term Outlook

Rainfed crop production is expected to reach its lowest level since 1984, when the country suffered a serious food crisis. For many rural households, it's no longer a question of a lean period, but of famine. Current survival strategies are grounded in rural-urban migration, with residents of most rural areas completely dependent on remittances from migrating family members. The traditional grains, millet and sorghum, are no longer found on local markets. Changes in household eating habits (replacement of sorghum and millet by wheat and rice) are increasingly difficult to maintain as prices for these substitute products continue to rise and household purchasing power grows steadily weaker. Traditional trading systems between Mauritania and its neighbors (Mali and Senegal) have been disrupted by poor harvests in border areas.

Adequacy of the Response from the Donor Community

Recent meetings organized by the Food Security Commission (CSA) and World Food Program (WFP) in December designed to inform and to heighten awareness of the risk of a full-fledged famine in the Aftout, the Senegal River Valley and the central plateau area of Hodh El Chargui and Hodh El Gharbi attest to the inadequacy of the response from the donor community to date, which has met only part of the country's food needs, as spelled out in the government's appeal for assistance on September 1 requesting:

  • 37,000 metric tons of grain and 14,000 MT of other foods for emergency food distribution programs to meet the needs of residents of high-risk areas for a period of three months;

  • 18,000 MT of grain to be sold at subsidized prices to population groups with minimum purchasing power; and

  • 20,000 MT of animal feed and veterinary products.

The reported deliveries of aid to WFP (1,166 MT of wheat from Germany, 871 MT of wheat from Spain and 2,917 MT of wheat from Sweden) is still inadequate. Much of this aid refers to assistance pledged for the 2002 emergency operation (EMOP), which is still arriving. These contributions should enable the ongoing WFP-CSA emergency aid program to continue the planned distribution of 16,231 MT of wheat, rice and vegetable oil to 246,500 people across seven regions of the country to meet their consumption needs.

For Aftout, the main logistical difficulties have just been overcome and distributions are underway. Distribution of "non-Aftout area" food aid could start before the end of January. WFP has just approved a West African EMOP for the provision of 55,000 metric tons of food aid, of which Mauritania's share is approximately 43,000 MT. WFP continues to seek donor funding and has mounted a large-scale ad campaign to publicize this EMOP. France has confirmed its intention of providing 2,000 MT of wheat for distribution in Hodh El Chargui. The Lutheran World Federation, CARITAS and UNICEF continue to jointly operate 67 community feeding centers, food stores and grain banks. These centers have been overwhelmed by waves of malnourished children and pregnant or nursing women seeking help. The Netherlands may provide financing for the opening of another 27 community feeding centers in Hodh El Chargui and Hodh El Gharbi, in densely populated farming areas of Kobonni, Djiguenni, Adel Bagrou and Fassala Néré districts (moughataa).

Recommendations for Further Action

The aid figures proposed in November clearly need to be revised upwards to reflect the increase in the numbers of food insecure persons in agricultural, agro-pastoral and urban areas of the country and the seriously diminished capacity of these people to meet their food needs.

Supply-side recommendations for improving food availability:

  • Donors and other development partners should support the Mauritanian government's requests for seeds, fertilizer, pesticides and other farm inputs and ensure that these supplies are available in time for planting off-season rice and vegetable crops. Growing vegetable crops should be expanded into up-country areas (wadi and oasis areas) where water supplies are plentiful during the post-rainy season. With no grain trade between these areas and grain-producing areas of the country this year, it is particularly important to help local residents produce enough to meet their consumption needs.

  • Donors and other development partners should respond to the request by the Mauritanian government for logistical support for its Food Security Commission to enable it to plan and conduct needed operations efficiently.

  • The Mauritanian government should place a temporary moratorium on customs duties for imports of rice and other grains from Senegal and Mali to quickly step up imports, replenish supplies on markets in border areas and lower prices.

  • The Mauritanian government should write off the heavy debts incurred by irrigated farming cooperatives in the wake of crop failures caused by the 1999 floods, to allow farmers to get back to earning a living and resume activities in irrigated areas.

  • The Mauritanian government should carry out pest control measures against grain-eating birds in conjunction with the governments of neighboring Mali and Senegal. Demand-side recommendations for improving food access:

  • Donors and other development partners should support WFP and Mauritanian government appeals for food aid, giving top priority to extremely food-insecure population groups and to supplying animal feed to protect the livelihood of herders and agropastoralists.

  • The Mauritanian government should revise its emergency food needs, based on an assessment of household food access by the CSA, PREGEC, WFP, FEWS NET and other assistance agencies.

  • The Mauritanian government and its partners should promptly draw up contingency plans by sector or occupational group, because the present crisis will most likely last at least 10 months (until the 2003 harvest of dieri crops) if not 12 months (until the December 2003 harvest), the earliest certain population groups will be able to get back on their feet. All parties need to act quickly to head off the imminent famine threatening the country's 52,000 extremely food-insecure farmers, who are exhausting their survival strategies. This crisis could engulf all moderately to highly food-insecure population groups (some 1 million farmers and herders raising cattle and camels) with sharply reduced options for getting food.

Key Indicators to Monitor

FEWS NET makes the following conclusions based on a combination of WFP/Mauritania survey data, information furnished by NGOs active in food insecure areas and the facts emerging from field missions conducted by the French Red Cross:

  • On-farm grain reserves are depleted.

  • Supplies of traditional grains and other foods (such as cowpeas, watermelons and groundnuts) on markets in rural areas are extremely tight.

  • Prices for food staples sold commercially are up sharply.

  • Grazing lands are seriously degraded.

  • There is little if any household potential to manage food deficits at the local level (through the sale of animals, collection of wild plant foods, informal sector employment and so on).

  • Grain flows between Mauritania and Mali and Senegal are down sharply.

  • As of January 1, 2003, very little aid has been distributed.

  • The size of food insecure areas is expanding and the numbers of local residents facing famine conditions are increasing.

  • Mass rural-urban migration is seriously affecting food security conditions in urban areas.

  • Remittances from emigrants to family members back home are uncertain and erratic.

  • There is clear mounting evidence of malnutrition and undernourishment.

FEWS NET will do its best to monitor changes in these indicators in highly and extremely food insecure areas as well as in moderately food-insecure areas based on survey data and reports by the LWF, CARITAS, DOULOS, UNICEF, WFP and Ministry of Health and Social Affairs.