4 May 2012
The Caritas aid network is responding across five countries in West Africa where millions of people are at risk from drought and poor harvests in the Sahel region south of the Sahara.
A May update on the situation says ‘we’re on the brink of a serious humanitarian crisis’. Around 15 million people are at risk of not having enough food in a crisis expected to be acute until September.
Pope Benedict has also urged the international community to ‘seriously address the extreme poverty of these people’. New Zealanders have already been generous in donating $10,000 to the Sahel Appeal launched by Caritas Aotearoa New Zealand.
The crisis has been caused by low rainfall followed by droughts, which have led to poor harvests and higher prices for food items in the region. It’s been complicated further by the return of migrants from Libya and Côte d’Ivoire, and conflict in northern Mali. This fighting has displaced up to 200,000 people within the country and forced 160,000 to flee to neighbouring countries such as Niger.
The five countries in the Sahel most affected have already declared a state of emergency and called on the international community for help. Caritas is responding in Niger, Mali, Burkina Faso, Chad and Mauritania – distributing essential food to the most vulnerable people; seeds and agricultural inputs for planting; and setting up food and work programmes to provide sustainable solutions.
In Niger alone, 5.5 million people or 35 percent of the population, are affected. More than one million children in the region face acute malnutrition.
Food and work programmes saved lives in last year’s Horn of Africa drought. Caritas humanitarian programmes officer Mark Mitchell recently returned from Kenya where he saw the difference that good, effective relief programmes can make.
‘Lessons have been learnt from the drought in the Horn of Africa,’ says Mr Mitchell, ‘in terms of responding quicker and noticing the warning signs and thresholds of hardship earlier.
‘I’ve seen the importance of Food for Work schemes in putting in place better water supplies, using better collection methods and improving access to water in the long term.’
Niger the worst food crisis
Nick Harrop of CAFOD (England and Wales) says people in Niger have told him in the past few days that this year’s food crisis is ‘The worst they can remember’.
Mintou, a grandmother living in a village about three hours’ drive from the capital, said: ‘There was one year when it was very bad, which we call “kantchakalague” meaning tiredness, thinness, when people are thin and animals are overwhelmed. Maybe we can compare this year that that one. But I think this year is worse.’
In a normal year, the harvest in November would produce enough food to supply the people in the village all year. But last year’s harvest was disastrous and people in Mintou’s village have already run out of food.
‘We have never known a time like this,’ said Ramatu, one of Mintou’s neighbours. ‘We planted sorghum, millet, groundnuts – and then the rainfall just stopped. There wasn’t sufficient water so the crops couldn’t grow. Instead of grains and seeds, we have nothing.
‘There are some days when I have nothing to give my children. In the morning and the afternoon you can go without eating. But at night you have to go out and find food. You cannot spend a day without eating.’
Mintou and Ramatu work hard collecting firewood or foliage for animals, and make brushes or mattresses out of old millet stalks so they have something to sell for a few francs at the local market. But the village’s food stores are almost empty, and people have little left to share.
Image: The 2011 harvest was disastrous for Mintou and her family who live in the Dosso Region of Niger. Her four sons have left the village to find work so they can send money home. But, with seven months until the next harvest, Mintou has run out of food to feed her five grandchildren. Nick Harrop/CAFOD