The Red Cross is carrying out assessments in the Sahel region of west Africa where millions of people are at risk of a food crisis this year.
Low and erratic rainfall and insect infestations have led to poor harvests and lack of pasture in parts of Niger, Chad, Mali, Mauritania, Senegal and Burkina Faso. Communities are also dealing with high food prices and reduced cash flow from migrant workers sending money back to their families from Libya and the Ivory Coast.
Unless urgent measures are taken now, the Sahel region could experience a major food crisis.
Red Cross response in west Africa
The International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies has already released over £500,000 to help 70,000 people, in advance of the full assessments of the affected countries.
In Mauritania, where assessments have already been completed, the Red Cross plans to help over 10,000 households for the next year. The programme will include: emergency relief distributions; water and sanitation; and activities to reduce future risks, through more resilient livelihoods.
During recent assessments in Mauritania, the Red Cross found the lack of rain had seriously affected people’s ability to grow crops. As a result, in rural villages, such as Tchout, all the men and some women have moved to towns in search of work.
In Tchout, the Red Cross team found two in twelve children were already malnourished. The money and food sent home by those who have left to work elsewhere does not go far.
Halima, a 32-year-old mother of four boys, said: “Eight months ago, my husband went to the capital to work as a laborer. But since then he’s only been able to send me 25kg of rice and 5kg of oil.”
Food shortages in Mauritania
Another village, Tenwakoudeil, is in a similar situation where agricultural production is non-existent and farmers are struggling to feed their animals. To survive, they have started selling them at lower prices and many men have gone to Nouadhibou, a coastal city, to fish.
Access to safe water and sanitation is also a major problem here. The only source of water for the village is a well 30 metres deep, which serves both people and animals.
In Tenwakoudeil, women’s weaving co-operatives and small-scale trading are practically the only economic activities that allow families to survive.
Slow response to east Africa food crisis
A recent report by Oxfam and Save the Children says tens of thousands of people have died unnecessarily during the current food crisis in east Africa because the international community, donor governments and humanitarian agencies didn’t respond quickly enough.
Clearly, we need to avoid such a situation in west Africa where once again the international community can see a crisis looming. In order to avert it, funds are needed now to help communities become more resilient before the crisis hits.
During 2004-2005, people in the Sahel faced a particularly severe drought, to which the British Red Cross responded by launching an emergency appeal. However, as the UN calculated at the time, $1 could have been spent to prevent a child becoming malnourished, whereas it cost $80 a day to treat a malnourished child.
The emergency response was necessary to save lives, but as always more could have been saved by acting earlier. Last year, the Red Cross acknowleged a similar situation when it published a report on the east Africa food crisis focussing on the need to support longer term food security to avoid future food crises.
Building resilience to food crises
In the village of Roti, this is exactly what the Mauritanian Red Crescent is doing, with support from other Red Cross and Red Crescent National Societies. Like many other villages in Mauritania, families here are struggling with the effects of poor rainfall: their crops are failing and they have no money to buy the products needed to sow expensive drought-resistant grain.
High demand and low availability of food are pushing up prices. Normally, a sack of wheat costs £10, but villagers are now paying £17 per sack.
However, unlike other villages, gardening activities are fairly well developed in Roti, where the Mauritanian Red Crescent is teaching people to grow food that is less dependent on abundant rains. The results are encouraging, with families producing crops of melons, cowpeas and millet for home consumption and trading.
A responsibility to respond
The International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies will be supporting the Mauritanian Red Crescent in addressing the looming food crisis by setting up a mobile unit to help with early detection and treatment of malnutrition. Over the coming year it also plans to address the root causes and reduce the risk of future food crises through a number of initiatives, which include:
Providing grants to communities for livelihoods projects
Establishing community irrigated gardens with water system and solar panels
Raising awareness of famine early warning systems to help people have a better understanding of what and when to plant.
The British Red Cross don’t know yet whether it will launch an emergency appeal to respond to the food situation in west Africa, but what we do know is the more prepared we are to respond quickly the more lives we can save.
The British Red Cross’ Disaster Fund is a facility designed to rapidly allocate funds to disasters irrespective of whether they have a high media profile or not. So far, we’ve used our Disaster Fund to contribute £1 million to the Red Cross response in east Africa, which includes much of the early allocations of funding before the crisis was widely reported.