Vulnerable communities are already feeling the effects of a food crisis in West Africa, long before its expected peak in the next several months. In some areas, World Vision staff are seeing children, especially girls, forced to leave their homes and head to the city, in hopes of getting a job to send money to their starving families. In other villages, women and girls have to walk even longer distances to gather water, making them vulnerable to predators, both human and animal.
“We’re seeing parents forced to make decisions about the safety or education of one child to feed another,” said Paul Sitnam, emergency director with World Vision in West Africa. “For some families, getting through the crisis means choosing which child will get to eat that night and which will have to wait with an empty belly until the next day.”
What started as a cyclical food and nutrition crisis this year has hit some countries in the region earlier and harder than expected. In years past, populations have had five to ten years to recover from droughts and severe food shortages. This latest crisis hits some areas less than two years since their last drought. The situation in Niger has been made worse by unrest in Libya and the Ivory Coast. Nigerien migrant workers have been forced to return to their home country, making them unable to supply their families with vital income. These factors leave people with fewer coping mechanisms. World Vision staff on the ground estimate at least one in five people in some areas won’t have the food they need.
The Famine Early Warning Systems Network (FEWS-NET) predicts that acute food insecurity will begin to rise to “crisis levels” as early as March 2012, and they are calling for targeted food assistance for at least the next six months. The governments of Mali, Mauritania, and Niger have all called for international help. However, the situation in Mali could become more severe than its neighbouring countries because of the lack of rain and a food supply shortage in the country (due to ongoing food exports to other countries with deficits).
“There is little resilience in communities who are already 'food poor,’” said Chance Briggs, national director for World Vision in Mali. “Just months after Mali's harvest, many family granaries are almost empty and local food distribution centers have no access to surplus grains. Food prices are twice as high as they were last year.”
The consequences of a crisis like this will be severe and could result in an extended period of hunger and malnutrition; a lack of seeds for a new harvest next year; mass migration from rural to urban areas; and loss of livestock. Food prices remain high from last year's increases and could rise even higher in the next few months.
While it’s too early to accurately predict the full extent of the crisis, World Vision urges the international community to take action now so the situation doesn’t become as deadly as the famine in the Horn of Africa. Working in multiple countries to address the shortages, since October 2011 World Vision's emergency responders have:
- Prioritised and expanded life-saving nutrition programmes for children
- Supported free food distribution to low-income families
- Vaccinated livestock to protect them from disease and preserve families’ livelihood
- Distributed seeds to farmers
- Drilled additional wells to increase access to clean, safe water