Mauritania Monthly Report May 2002: Worsening food insecurity in rural zones

Originally published


Food security continues to deteriorate in all rural areas of the country, as well as in slum areas of Nouakchott and Nouadhibou. Information from local farmers and regional agricultural agencies in the Gorgol, Brakna and Trarza Wilayas during the last ten days of May suggests that this year's lean period (soudure) will be the worst since 1984, a year of food crisis in the Sahel. Household capacity to access needed food products is sharply reduced and, in certain parts of Aftout, the Senegal River Valley, Hodh El Gharbi and Hodh El Chargui Wilayas, is at its lowest level in ten years.

This situation stems from a combination of several factors - this past year's smaller grain harvests, dwindling or loss of potential water resources, the sudden loss of large numbers of small animals in January, the growing shortages of pasture and wild foods in the wake of the January storms, hikes in staple food prices and the inadequacy of the humanitarian aid furnished to date, both from a qualitative as well as a quantitative standpoint.

It is becoming increasingly difficult for households to manage their food security during this year's lean period, which began two months earlier than usual. Their only recourse is migration and borrowing. FEWS NET reports widespread migration from areas of Aftout, Hodh El Gharbi and Hodh El Chargui. Tired of coping with the harsh living conditions in central Aftout and Hodh El Chargui (Amourj, Bassikounou and Djiguenni Moughataas), local residents have drifted closer to major roads and water sources. Such a phenomenon has been unheard of since 1984.

With the first rains falling in Mali, seasonal migration from Mauritania into western Mali has speeded up.

Prices of local and imported grains continue to soar. Grain imports from Mali and Senegal bound for the large cities are clearly picking up, but these imports are bypassing residents of rural villages in border areas.

1. Overview of Current Food Security Conditions and Prospects

Food security conditions around the country have deteriorated as a result of the limited availability of traditional grains (millet, sorghum and maize) on local markets and at the individual household level, the loss of large numbers of small livestock traditionally serving as a means of access to marketed food products, and the unavailability of wild plant products used as a means of coping with food shortages. It's no longer enough to simply cut down on the size of individual portions. Farm families have reached the point of having to skip entire meals. The absence of evening fires in most villages throughout Aftout and the Senegal River Valley is a reflection of the magnitude of food insecurity problems. Heavy emigration may have reduced the number of mouths to feed, but remittances (of food and cash) from migrant workers are dwindling due to the soaring food prices and lack of available jobs in urban areas.

The current food situation throughout Aftout and in central Hodh El Gharbi and Hodh El Chargui is so bad, unless mitigated, that a famine appears inescapable at this point. The food crisis in these areas is heightened by the lack of a safe water supply, the weak purchasing power of the local population in what is regarded as the most poverty-stricken area of the country, and the limited benefits of grain imports from neighboring countries. Changes in grain import and transfer mechanisms (currently in the hands of grain traders out of Nouakchott) with Mali and Senegal and lack of purchasing power continue to limit the access of local residents to food through the markets.

Residents of the Senegal River Valley, eastern Aftout (Barkéol Moughataa and the western part of M’Bout Moughataa) and southwestern Hodh El Gharbi (Touil District in Tintane Moughataa) are extremely vulnerable to food insecurity. The first fruit crop from the country's stands of Boscia senegalensis trees is already being picked by gatherers of wild plant products, who cannot wait for the fruits to mature.

Falling prices for emaciated sheep and cattle in livestock-raising areas of the country are undermining household purchasing power and food security. The purchasing power of herders and their families is eroded further by losses in January of small livestock that were kept as part of a « family bank ». Supplies of milk and other dairy products are tight as a result of:

The departure of migratory animal herds two or three months ahead of schedule; and

The growing scarcity of pasture used to feed animals left behind by migrating herders..

Though food markets still have ample supplies of rice, wheat, and wheat products (flour and pasta), prices continue to climb.

1.A. Current Conditions and Prospects in Farming Areas

1.A.1. Areas with a Single Farming System

There has been very little change in conditions in these areas since April. In Guidimakha Wilaya, residents of Ould Yengé Moughataa are still being classified as extremely food-insecure. They remain unable to benefit from grain imports from the Kayes region of Mali, which are now being intercepted by large-scale grain traders from Nouakchott. Residents of Kankossa are looking to Kiffa, which is now getting less and less grain from Affolé, an area where the OXFAM umbrella program has improved production and marketing system management practices.

In Selibaby Moughataa, the status of moderately food-insecure population groups has improved slightly since April. Apparently, the volume of cash remittances has swelled as more and more migrants become aware of the problems in this area and step up remittances to their families back home.

In Trarza Wilaya, the inability of local farmers to plant hot off-season crops (February to June), due to credit problems preventing them from purchasing seeds and other inputs, has aggravated the grain deficit in this area. Imports of Senegalese rice are benefiting large-scale traders rather than local consumers. The local population is still being classified as extremely food-insecure.

In livestock-raising areas of the country, milk production by animals left behind by migratory herders to help feed their families is declining. This is affecting the households’ food security by limiting what is domestically available for consumption and what can be sold on the market. (Milk sales to collection agents for pasteurization plants at 150 UM per liter had previously provided these households with access to a number of food products, such as rice, wheat, sugar and tea). Thus, the status of this population group, classified as moderately food-insecure in April, is deteriorating.

1.A.2. Areas with Mixed Farming Systems

The food security situation in these areas after the last harvests of the season is similar to that of areas with a single farming system. Household stores of locally-grown grains are nonexistent and, without adequate cash income, residents of these areas are forced to resort to bartering. Local farmers continue to borrow grain at increasingly higher and usurious rates of interest. Some farmers are able to borrow grain against their future harvests, depending on the degree of trust between lender and borrower. Farmers from Monguel Moughataa interviewed in Kaëdi indicated that they had borrowed a 50 kg sack of wheat selling for 3,500 UM in cash against a pledge to pay back three 50 kg sacks of sorghum from their next harvest, with each sack of sorghum (equivalent to 12.5 mouds) currently fetching anywhere from 6,250 to 7,500 UM.

This past April and May, farmers in Aftout were unable to engage in seasonal work paid in kind or cash - such as drawing water for animals or tending animal herds - for migrating herds stopped in the area only briefly before moving on in search of water and pasture.

Like farmers in Adwaba settlements of Hodh El Gharbi and Hodh El Chargui, the farm population of Aftout is facing a serious water shortage as area wells continue to run dry. A number of encampments have pulled up stake to move closer to major roads and water sources.

The entire farm population of Aftout and the Senegal River Valley and of Adwaba settlements in central Hodh El Gharbi and Hodh El Chargui is classified as extremely food-insecure.

1.B. Current Conditions and Prospects in Agropastoralist Areas

The human population in livestock-raising areas of the country is on the move. Very few herders and their families are left in these areas since, with the exception of households with mixed herds of small livestock consisting mainly of goats, everyone has left for the south, with its more abundant water resources and better grazing lands.

Up until April, with their deficit management systems for shortfalls in rainfed crop production still operating relatively smoothly, agropastoralists were the least vulnerable population group. However, their situation is rapidly changing as the terms of trade for their crops and animal products versus grains continue to deteriorate. In December 2001, an average sheep selling for 10,000 UM on the Kaëdi market bought its owner 154 kg of sorghum. As of April 17, the same sheep was selling for 14,000 UM but bought only 117 kg of sorghum, as the price of a moud (approximately 4 kg) of sorghum jumped from 280 UM to 480 UM in this time period. As of May 20, the price for an average sheep had fallen back down to 12,000 UM as a result of the physical wasting of animals. Sorghum prices, meanwhile, had not changed.

Thus, the situation of this moderately food-insecure population group could deteriorate to one of extreme food-insecurity by the end of June if there is any delay in the onset of the rainy season and in the implementation of price stabilization programs, such as that of the Food Security Commissariat (CSA), whereby wheat would be sold at low fixed prices.

1.C. Current Conditions and Prospects in Livestock-raising Areas

Conditions are relatively stable in livestock-raising areas of R’Kiz, Méderdra, Bababé and Boghé Moughataa. A FEWS NET mission touring these areas over the period from May 20 to May 27 found that, despite a visible deterioration in the condition of grazing lands in these areas since the last FEWS NET mission in April, there was little change in the food security situation in Bababé and Méderdra . According to FEWS NET, the only possible explanation for this paradox is that sales of large animals in general and milking animals in particular, though unusual for this time of year in these areas, have enabled households with fewer mouths to feed in the wake of the departure of all able-bodied men with migratory animal herds to purchase enough food.

In Gorgol Wilaya, grazing conditions in the southern reaches of M’Bout and Maghama Moughataas are still good.

According to regional offices of the Ministry of Rural Development and Environment (MDRE) in the Guidimakha and Assaba Wilayas of the country, brush fires continue to ravage grazing areas in the south.

1.D. Current Conditions and Prospects in Urban Areas

The influx of migrants has heightened food insecurity problems for households in urban slum areas. With their lack of job skills and the saturation of the job market in government and industry, the only employment opportunities for these newcomers are in the informal sector (in small retail businesses, as casual laborers and porters) The income earned from these low-paying jobs must meet the needs of the urban household, as well as those of the extended family back home. As potential sources of income become increasingly scarce, household expenditures keep rising in line with steady hikes in food prices and the cost of social and commercial services.

2. Nationwide Trends and Region-wide Outlook

2.A. Conditions in Neighboring Countries

Conditions in neighboring countries have changed little since the month of April. Grain transfers from Senegal and Mali are being stepped up, but are still being routed directly to urban population centers, bypassing rural towns and villages. The detachments of customs officers patrolling the borders to intercept shipments of imported rice have only served to reinforce these new trade dynamics. This shift in the destination of imports continues to negatively affect local farmers throughout Hodh El Gharbi, Hodh El Chargui and the Senegal River Valley, who are accustomed to relying on these inflows of grain to cope with their own production shortfalls.

2.B. Food Availability and Access

With household reserves virtually depleted in most grain-producing areas of the country, nationwide grain availability hinges on the buoyancy of the foreign trade sector to ensure regular imports of rice, wheat and wheat flour.

Current grain access problems at the individual household level confirm the low rates of grain production self-sufficiency, by moughtaaa, as calculated in March. Households in countless grain-producing areas are being forced to borrow against future grain harvests and to rely on prospective cash remittances or handouts of wheat to access needed food products. Outright grain purchases are rare. Access to marketed food products at steadily rising prices is limited by weak household purchasing power. Along with Aftout, this low grain production area is the most impoverished area of the country. Thus, the food security situation in Aftout and in Adwaba settlements in Hodh El Gharbi and Hodh El Chargui is rapidly approaching famine conditions.

The rate of deterioration of the food situation in the Senegal River Valley and in areas with heavy out-migration (Selibaby, Bassikounou, Boumdeïd) has been slowed by remittances of food and cash from migrant workers (see Table I).

Rising prices for staple foods in urban population centers continue to affect households in city slums that are swollen by mass rural-urban migration.

2.B.1. Supply of Staple Foods and Price Trends

Supplies of traditional grains are extremely limited in all rural marketplaces. The leading grain importer at the Kaëdi market indicated that her sorghum inventory (thirteen 50 kg sacks) was at its lowest level since 1984. On the same occasion, she admitted to having a hard time selling her sorghum for more than 450 UM per moud or approximately 115 UM per kg (which is the cost per kg of sorghum purchased on the Kayes market and shipped to Kaëdi by truck). Only one grain trader on the Boghé market had any sorghum for sale, which, he confessed, was smuggled in from Senegal. The explanation for the current stability in sorghum prices compared with price levels on the same market in April lies in the ongoing harvests of irrigated maize crops in small-scale irrigated areas throughout the department. Except in Nouakchott, where, according to the market report published by the Food Security Commissariat (CSA), sorghum prices are down from the month of April, prices of traditional grains are still climbing everywhere else (Figure 1). According to consumers, they are back up to record 1984 levels.

Like grain prices, prices for other food products are also steadily rising. There is a developing bread crisis in Nouakchott, where bakers, in a gesture of good will, have chosen not to raise the price of bread, holding the price of a loaf of bread at 20 UM, while the cost of a kilogram of wheat flour has jumped from 70 UM to 95 UM. The price of cooking oil (sold by the quarter liter) is rising perceptibly and has already topped 200 UM per liter, an increase of over 10 per cent since March.

2.B.1.1. Conditions in Kaëdi, a Rural Town

An investigation of conditions on the Kaëdi grain market produced the following findings:

1. The market is supplied mostly with Malian sorghum and rice smuggled into the country via Senegal. Mediocre harvests throughout the region coupled with farmers’ unwillingness to sell their rice crops in the wake of poor harvests of traditional grains have kept inventories of locally grown grains low. There are, however, small quantities of rainfed sorghum from M’Bout and Maghama Moughataa being sold by housewives in need of other basic staples such as oil, sugar and tea.

2. After distributions of free food aid ended in February, the per kilogram price of sorghum, which had fallen 10 UM in March, down to 120 UM, shot up by 20 UM, to 140 UM as of May 22.

3. Prices for other foodstuffs have followed the same trend as sorghum prices. The price of sugar rose by almost 10 per cent (from 110 UM to 120 UM/ kg, between April 20 and May 22). Oil prices are up 20 per cent, (from 200 UM to 240 UM/liter). The steepest rises by far are in meat prices, which jumped by 30 per cent. These price hikes may have something to do with the celebration of Mouloud, a festival commemorating the anniversary of the birth of the Prophet Mohammed (falling on May 31 of this year), when local communities organize religious vigils oftentimes accompanied by feasting.

2.B.1.2. Conditions in Nouakchott, a Large City

The trend detected back in April has grown stronger. Grain traders are continuing to import grain from Mali (sorghum and millet) and Senegal (rice and sorghum). The lower sorghum prices reported in a number of city marketplaces in Nouakchott (Toujounine and El Mina, where sorghum is selling for 130 UM/kg), are hard to explain, even on these markets where supplies are always ample and which are able to offer consumers a choice of different products. (Only in the SOCOGIM marketplace where sorghum is selling for approximately 140 UM/kg do prices better reflect supply dynamics.) One theory regarded by FEWS NET as a possible explanation for this downward trend in prices has to do with the current policy of curtailing imports of foreign rice as a way of pressing Mauritanians into consuming local rice. The growth in the supply of locally grown rice currently selling for 110 UM/kg, or 20-30 UM/kg less than sorghum, has driven down demand for sorghum in Nouakchott. It is little surprise that urban households are turning more and more to local rice, which they are using in dishes traditionally calling for sorghum or millet.

After falling by 8 per cent, 9 per cent and 5 per cent, respectively, between March and April, wheat, cooking oil, and sugar prices are on the rise. The price of a liter of cooking oil in the Sebkha marketplace (in a low-income district of the city) is up to 240 UM (from 200 UM in April), while the price of wheat has climbed to 60 UM (from 55 UM in April).

Tight supplies of traditional grains continue to force up prices of imported food staples, serving as substitute ingredients for grain-based diets.

Supplies on different livestock markets around the capital are as ample as they were in April. The deterioration in grazing conditions has increased market supplies of livestock, but these are mostly emaciated animals. Prices of well-fattened animals are visibly rising. Prices of fattened small animals are up by 8 per cent from April, while camel prices are up 12 per cent and cattle prices have shot up by 27 per cent.

2.B.2. Food Access

Conditions are deteriorating around the country as grain supplies tighten and prices of marketed food products continue to rise.

2.B.2.1. Areas in Poor Condition

Residents of Aftout, the Senegal River Valley and of Adwaba settlements in central and southern Hodh El Gharbi and Hodh El Chargui are finding it increasingly difficult to access needed food staples. The most common method of accessing food products is by borrowing from local merchants until emigrating family members are able to send food or cash. For many households in these areas, the food crisis is beginning to take an alarming turn. The three months worth of emergency aid requested by FEWS NET in April for these farming communities, which have been classified as extremely food-insecure since March, has still not arrived.

2.B.2.2. Areas in Average Condition

By now, it is clear that farmers in these areas cannot possibly succeed in adapting their food management systems to prevailing economic conditions and will be unable to make it through the lean period without outside aid. The deterioration in the terms of trade for small stock animals versus marketed food products, coupled with the scarcity of wild plant foods, has made residents of these areas, like those of areas in poor condition, dependent on borrowing and assistance from migrating family members.

2.B.2.3. Areas in Good Condition

Despite the deterioration in conditions in these areas due to a combination of different factors (an influx of immigrants from food-short areas, hikes in prices, the erosion in food availability, etc.), residents of these areas are still able to rely on traditional food management mechanisms. Farming communities in the pockets of poverty lying within these areas (Hamod, Tenaha and Bla Jemel Communes in Kankossa Moughataa, El Mabrouk Commune in Djiguenni Moughataa and Belougué Lithama Commune in Maghama Moughataa) are already classified as extremely food-insecure.

2.B.2.4. Urban Areas

Residents of city slum areas are beginning to feel the effects of mass rural-urban migration. Household size has doubled if not tripled, as immigrants flood in from the countryside, without any measures being taken to help strengthen household purchasing power.

3. Conclusions and Recommendations

3.1. Vulnerable Areas and Population Groups

Aftout, the Senegal River Valley and Adwaba settlements in central Hodh El Gharbi and Hodh El Chargui are still being classified as extremely food-insecure areas. This group of "at risk" areas could grow larger as the food situation continues to deteriorate in city slums and pockets of poverty in areas of the country where conditions have, until now, been categorized as average (Section 2.B.2.3.). For farmers in Adwaba settlements within the area bounded by R’Kiz and Méderdra, the premature departure of migratory animal herds has deprived them of a source of cash income, making them completely dependent on the bartering system and thus contributing to a serious food access problem

Shifting patterns of trade, cutbacks in imports from neighboring countries, and deteriorating condition of grazing lands as a result of brush fires and overgrazing have undermined the coping strategies of residents of Tintane, Timbédra, Aïoun El Atrouss, Néma, Moudjéria, Ould Yengé and Kiffa Moughataa. While currently classified as highly food-insecure, this population group could become extremely food-insecure if appropriate measures designed to strengthen their purchasing power, such as sales of wheat at subsidized prices or the opening of grain banks, are not taken in time.

3.2. Recommendations for Monitoring and Intervention

Despite the steady deterioration in the food situation in rural areas of the country, there is still no response from the donor community. The fact that food insecurity is escalating at an alarming pace is clearly indicated in trip and Monthly Reports published by FEWS NET/Mauritania, monthly and semi-annual bulletins put out by the Food Security Commissariat, findings emerging from consultations conducted by the WFP, and data supplied by NGOs active in rural areas. The current food situation in what are presently being categorized as highly or extremely food-insecure areas of the country calls for emergency aid to head off a full-fledged famine.