For the third time in less than a decade, the Sahel region of West Africa could once again face a food crisis. The most urgent question now is not whether a response is needed, but when it will happen and at what scale. But perhaps the most important question is: what can we do to reduce the likelihood that we will be having the same conversation, facing the same life-or-death consequences, next year, or the year after?
We saw the deadly costs of delayed intervention last year in the Horn of Africa, where widespread hunger in Ethiopia and Kenya and famine in Somalia led to the deaths of as many as 100,000 people, according to figures collected by the United Kingdom’s Department for International Development (DfID). While the early warning signs from East Africa were far more severe than that from West Africa (in Niger, food production was 10-15 percent below average in 2011, but was an estimated75 percent below average in Somalia.), we should take them no less seriously, particularly when it comes to the value of early and preventative action.
In Niger alone, 2.6 million people today do not have enough food to meet their basic nutritional needs – they are living with hunger on a scale most of us will never experience. The Tahoua region is the most affected, where Concern has worked since 2003 and responded to previous food crises in 2005, 2008, and 2009. And now again in 2012, nearly 24 percent of the population is expected to be facing severe food insecurity. After a poor harvest last year, food supplies are rapidly declining, with many families expecting to completely run out of food by as early as March unless they receive immediate assistance. For communities that raise livestock as their primary assets and source of food, there is less pasture and water to keep their animals – and sole livelihood – alive.
Low food supplies means higher prices for basic staples, such as millet. Cereal prices are now an alarming 40-50 percent higher than they were last year. This, coupled with a loss of income from failed crops and weakened, unhealthy livestock, could make food an unaffordable luxury for Niger’s poorest. In addition to increasing the risk of malnutrition, the rising food prices have other consequences. Children often drop out of school because they need to help their families run the household and earn income. Families may also be forced to sell assets for quick cash or leave rural communities to find work in urban areas and send money home, travelling as far as Libya, the Ivory Coast, and Nigeria.
In response to the clear early warning signs, Concern is rolling out a short-term emergency response program to give the most vulnerable people in Tahoua access to cash so that they can buy food and meet other basic survival needs. The program includes cash-for-work projects, in which Concern will involve more than 3,018 community members from villages in Tahoua to prepare the land for the next agricultural season. Concern will also distribute emergency cash transfers using mobile phone technology and manually, reaching 6,350 extremely poor households. As we get closer to the lean season, Concern is also maintaining ‘surge capacity’ to screen and treat children for malnutrition and to build the capacity of local health facilities to provide emergency nutrition treatment and services.
For women like Saheba, these interventions mean she will not have to borrow just to feed her family. Like many in Niger, Saheba and her family were forced to borrow food in order to make it to the next harvest. To not put her family too far into debt, Sabeha would take as little food on loan as possible, often feeding her family just one meal a day through the lean season. She then became a recipient of Concern’s cash transfer program. “Since receiving cash transfers, we no longer have any debts and we have been able to meet our household’s needs,” she said.
However, these interventions are only a short-term solution to Niger’s hunger problem. The fact is, droughts and food shortages are happening more and more regularly in the Sahel region, and we cannot wait to intervene only when thousands, mostly children under five years old, are dying from malnutrition.
That is unacceptable.
To break this pattern, we need to make sure people have options for earning a living beyond just agriculture. Currently, 82 percent of Niger’s population relies on farming for survival and 60 percent live below the poverty line. Concern plans to support the most vulnerable people in Tahoua to develop other income opportunities through cash-for-work programs that improve community infrastructure, asset transfers like cash or goats that enable households to cover their basic food needs, and training in other vocations like water management.
We also have to give farmers the tools and skills they need to be successful. Concern is providing the poorest farming communities with trainings on new techniques and methods for rehabilitating land. We are also distributing improved, drought-resistant seeds as well as fertilizer, all locally sourced, and helping introduce irrigation systems and other mechanisms that prevent crop loss.
Together, these efforts build resilience to emergency conditions. The world produces enough food for all of us, and we should not be tolerating so many people suffer from hunger. What we need is long-term investment in livelihoods, education, poverty reduction, local capacity to deliver health services and prevent, screen and treat malnutrition. .
We now have that opportunity in Niger and the Sahel. I am personally encouraged by the current momentum among international donors to make early response a priority when it comes to food crises. But the help needs to arrive now—not tomorrow, not next week. The early warning signs are loud and clear and the longer we wait, the more lives hang in the balance.