The Sahel’s Complex Vulnerability to Food CrisesFebruary 24, 2012 By Stuart Kent
“Across the Sahel region of western Africa, a combination of drought, poverty, high grain prices, environmental degradation, and chronic underdevelopment is expected to plunge millions of people into a new food and nutrition crisis this year,” according to a UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) statement from February 10. The coming “lean season” is predicted to be the third food crisis in less than a decade and highlights a set of glaring vulnerabilities in a region facing severe long-term threats to health, livelihoods, and security. However, as international agencies call for funding to mount yet another emergency response, serious concerns are being raised about what is (or isn’t) being done to address the root causes of vulnerability.
When a Crisis Loses the Surprise Factor
Though more than one million children under-five are estimated to be at risk of “severe acute malnutrition this year, during a ‘normal’ year this figure still hovers around 800,000,” according to the OCHA’s IRIN service. Across the Sahel, UNICEF estimates an under-five child mortality rate of 222 per 1,000 live births – this means that more than one in every five Sahelian children dies before the age of five.
“It’s not necessarily that there is no food, it’s that the poorest people can no longer afford to access the food with their own means,” elaborated Ben Safari of Catholic Relief Services. Jacques Higgins of the World Food Program weighed in, observing that, “after a crisis, people are not able anymore to recover, to rebuild their coping strategies and resilience until the next crisis hits.” For instance, households previously forced into selling off assets such as livestock during past crises have had insufficient time to recover and cannot now employ the same survival strategy.
The perception that the resilience of populations in the Sahel is being worn down by the increasing frequency of humanitarian events is supported by a December 2011 report from the UN Environment Programme. Livelihood Security: Climate Change, Migration and Conflict in the Sahel, provides a wealth of data, including detailed maps (described on New Security Beat here), and argues that successful strategies to reduce vulnerability and encourage adaptation require understanding “the exacerbating effect of changes in climate on population dynamics and conflict in the region.”
But despite the relatively unified voices emerging from practitioners, evaluations of past crises, and key international agencies about the importance of looking at, and directing funds towards, the long-term and interlinked vulnerabilities that drive food insecurity in the Sahel, “the argument has not been won yet,” said Cyprien Fabre, head of the European Commission Humanitarian Aid Department in West Africa, to IRIN recently.
Robert Johnson, a UNICEF nutrition specialist, told IRIN:
It is still difficult to ensure funding from government agencies for long-term preventative activities when there are critical life-saving interventions that they can respond to immediately. It’s much easier [for them] to justify life-saving than long-term.
Sources of Vulnerability
Populations across the Sahel face a diverse set of interwoven vulnerabilities that exacerbate long-term susceptibility to physical shocks such as late rains and failed harvests, as well as social shocks, such as conflict, insecurity, and displacement.
Though traditional adaptation strategies to threats such as desertification, land degradation, and water scarcity exist, they are increasingly in competition with one another, as conflict over land tenure between pastoralists and agriculturalists has revealed. Likewise, governance failures around the provision and control of resource usage and basic infrastructure (notably, water) have exacerbated tensions in a region where the majority of the population depends on rain-fed farming and/or pastoralism.
A contributing factor is that poor maternal healthcare and high rates of unmet need for family planning are common across the Sahel. This places a significant population-related burden on communities. Across the six nations expected by the UN to be most affected by the current crisis (Burkina Faso, Mali, Mauritania, Niger, Senegal, and Chad), the average level of maternal mortality is higher than 700 deaths per 100,000 births while the unmet need for family planning is estimated at more than 26 percent (averaged across states), according to World Health Organization data. (To put this in context, the average maternal mortality ratio in developing countries is 290 per 100,000 births, according to the WHO; in developed countries this figure drops to 14.)
A September 2011 report by the Sahel Working Group (SWG) on the prior crises of 2005 and 2010 concluded that “a glaring weakness in the development aid approach to addressing chronic food and nutrition insecurity is the low level of support for integrated reproductive and maternal health programs.”
Furthermore, mounting insecurity in the region is limiting access and displacing vulnerable populations. The International Committee of the Red Cross reported on February 20 that 60,000 people have been displaced within Mali since mid-January as a result of the evolving Touareg rebellion sparked by the return of well-armed fighters from Libya. Another 20,000 have fled across the border into Niger.
The regulation of local, national, and international food markets also has a role to play. “Markets respond to demand, not need,” writes Peter Gubbels in the SWG report. Vulnerable populations that lack the purchasing power to demand food, even when food is available, face significant threats. For instance, the report asserts that “a third of the population of Chad is chronically undernourished – regardless of the rains or the size of the harvest.”
Sustainable and Integrated Approaches
Without an integrated and long-term approach to the delivery of humanitarian and development aid, prospects for successfully addressing what has in essence become the normal state of crisis in the Sahel seem slim. Ideas for integrating maternal and reproductive health into existing programming, for addressing the environment and sources of insecurity together, and for merging crisis response with the need for integrated development through avenues such as disaster risk reduction are out there. But more must be done to put these ideas into practice in order to reduce the complex vulnerability of populations in the Sahel to future crises.
Sources: Al Jazeera, Groundswell International, International Institute for Environment and Development, Oxfam International, ReliefWeb, The International Committee of the Red Cross United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF), United Nations Environmental Program (UNEP), United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (UN-OCHA), World Health Organization.
Photo Credit: “Walking among scattered bones,” courtesy of the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies.