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Hunger: the other Sahel pandemic

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Abridged, adapted and translated from the El Diario article by Fabiola Barranco, on EU support to Action Against Hunger (ACF) in the Sahel (19/01/2021).

The Sahel is the African strip that stretches between Sahara and savannah, crossing the heart of the continent from east to west through 10 countries: Mauritania, Senegal, Gambia, Guinea, Mali, Burkina Faso, Niger, Nigeria, Chad and Cameroon.

But it is also the place where violence, conflicts, migratory movements and the ravages of the climate crisis — severe droughts or floods — have an impact on the lives of the 150 million people living there, of whom more than 33 million require urgent humanitarian assistance in 2021.

The fragile situation in this region explains why its human development indices rank low: more than half of the population continues to live below the poverty line; basic services such as education, health or water and sanitation, remain insufficient; and violence has affected more than 20 million people. This is why the Sahel is the epicentre of hunger.

In 2021, the European Commission’s humanitarian funding to the Sahel region reaches over €220 million. Given the challenges posed by the coronavirus crisis, projects have been adapted to continue saving lives, supporting pandemic detection and response measures, providing emergency food and nutrition assistance, as well as access to medical care and safe water. This support also facilitates access to humanitarian aid, on which millions of people in the Sahel depend.

In addition, the European Commission is providing €100 million in humanitarian assistance to support the rollout of vaccination campaigns in countries in Africa with critical humanitarian needs and fragile health systems. €10 million out of this funding will be supporting vaccination campaigns for the most vulnerable in West and Central Africa.

The pandemic exacerbates hunger

“His grandmother just brought this boy, who is visibly unwell,” laments Maryam Aboubacar, a psychomotor development therapist for malnourished children in the Intensive Nutritional Recovery Centre in Mayahi, Niger - one of the countries most afflicted by food insecurity, with 2.6 million people affected across the country.

Indeed, the little bony frame of the boy highlights his downcast eyes and weak health, the result of the severe malnutrition he suffers. Children are the first victims of hunger in the Sahel, where a third of deaths are associated with malnutrition. Chad, Mali and Niger on their account for 70% of all children with severe acute malnutrition in the region.

But, after months of treatment in this hospital, the boy’s vitality and health are back. He puts on weight, moves and plays with self-confidence and even smiles once in a while at Maryam - affectionately known as “the children’s mother”.

The pandemic is making the hunger challenge in the region more acute. Before COVID-19 struck, more than 2.4 million children were expected to suffer from severe acute malnutrition in the region in 2020. But with the pandemic, the figure rose to almost 3 million.

“For a mother in the Sahel, accessing the health centre has always been a challenge, but in the COVID scenario much more so. That’s why our teams give local communities tools to identify malnutrition, and how to treat it,” Martín de Miguel explains.

11 ventilators for an entire country

The COVID health crisis further highlights the fragility of health systems in the region. In Burkina Faso for instance, also one of the countries most affected by the pandemic in Africa, hospitals are equipped with a total of 11 ventilators, and 0.45 doctors on average for 10,000 inhabitants.

In Niger, the situation is even worse, with only 0.4 doctors per 10,000 inhabitants, 0.3 hospital beds for 1,000 people, 0.55 hospitals per 100,000 inhabitants and 5 ventilators.

While in Mali there are more doctors (1.8 doctors per 10,000 people) and more ventilators (a total of 56, distributed between private clinics and public hospitals) than in the other Central Sahel countries, it has only 0.1 beds per 1,000 inhabitants.

These figures highlight the limitations in dealing with this health crisis, which, as Mamadou Diop, from ACF’s West and Central Africa Regional Office, points out.

“This is one of the many pandemics or diseases threatening health in Africa,” he explains. This is why ACF focuses on the “global need to strengthen humanitarian aid in the region”, to mitigate the economic crisis resulting from this pandemic as well.

The challenge of getting basic food in COVID times

Livestock and farming are the main means of subsistence in the region, particularly in Senegal, Mauritania and the Central Sahel: Burkina Faso, Mali and Niger.This dependence on subsistence farming often results in seasonal hunger during the “lean season” between two harvests, when food stocks are depleted.

ACF’s efforts, with EU support, thus focus on anticipating and mitigating the numerous factors, such as conflicts or droughts, that contribute to reducing agro-pastoral production and, therefore, prolonging the season of hunger.

“With the pandemic, it is difficult to find seeds,” says Doro Diaw, a farmer in Senegal, who depended on donations from other farmers.

“There was no market, no buyers, so my onions were bad. We started eating 2 daily meals instead of 3," he says. “I used to go to the Niono fair in Mali to buy goods and sell them to earn some money. But with the pandemic, both countries have closed their borders, so I was forced to stay here in the camp and continued to sell pastries to be able to buy milk for children. Most trading has stopped and prices have risen, while activities allowing us to have some income have come to a halt,” says Zeina Walet Alamine, a refugee in the Mberra camp in Mauritania.

“The Sahel is one of the poorest regions in the world and remains one of the top priorities of the European Union’s humanitarian aid,” says Janez Lenarčič, European Commissioner for Crisis Management, who also stressed the importance of acting swiftly in the face of “the dramatic, worsening humanitarian situation in the region. The European Union remains committed to helping provide a better life for those trapped in crises that affect the region. This commitment goes beyond emergency assistance: it strengthens the community’s capacities to prepare for, and react to recurrent food and nutrition crises, which since last year have been aggravated by the impact of the pandemic.”

The closing of borders and markets, quarantine or mobility restrictions, measures to contain the spread of the virus, are leaving serious economic consequences. Families are increasingly struggling to access basic food, in the Sahel where today, more than ever, help is needed to change course and dispel hunger.