WEST AFRICA: Boom-bust cycle of hunger rolls on

Wednesday, October 18, 2006
Aid agencies are optimistic that harvests will be good in most of the Sahel this year, but warn there are pockets of failed crops, and that donor funds are still lacking for the projects that would nudge Africans away from their precarious dependence on foreign aid and erratic rainfall.

“Following a good end to the rainy season in the Sahel, forecasts for cereal production for this year are optimistic, but there continue to be localised crop failures that contribute directly to high rates of malnutrition,” the World Food Programme (WFP) said in a statement on Monday.

The Washington-based famine early warning system (FEWS) food security monitoring group confirmed in a report in late September that the outlook for the region in 2007 is “generally good” after an average or above average harvest this year.

The Sahel is a semi-arid belt that stretches from Mauritania in West Africa to Somalia in East Africa, dividing the Sahara’s southern fringe from the lush sub-Saharan region. It takes in parts of Mauritania, Senegal, Mali, Burkina Faso, Chad and Niger in West Africa.

In some parts of the region, 70 percent of people rely on tilling the dusty, orange dirt for their survival, every year experiencing a boom and bust cycle of plenty in the months after the rainy season, followed by dwindling food stocks in the months before the next rains start, usually in June or July.

It is not unusual for Sahelian villagers to turn to fervent prayer in the weeks running up to the rainy season because they are so desperate for good rains. When rains do not come, whole villages and regions can fall deserted as people migrate to urban areas to escape death.

The FEWS report said that pasture conditions in the Sahel have been “excellent” in 2006, which has helped improve the value and condition of livestock. It also said cereal prices have been consistently lower this year than in each of the previous five years, indicating an expectation of good harvests among traders.

The most worrying pockets of low rainfall and poor crop yields are found in Niger and eastern and southern Chad, FEWS said.

Malnutrition stalking young lives

Agencies warn that the good harvests are not an indication that donor attention is no longer needed.

WFP warned on Monday that acute malnutrition continues to menace 1.4 million children under age five in the Sahel alone, where it said at least 37 percent of this group suffers physical and mental wasting because of poor diets.

West Africa is still the worst place in the world to be a child, according to the UN children’s agency (UNICEF), which says nutritional standards are getting worse, not better, in many parts of the region.

Niger in 2005 had its best harvest since official records began, yet WFP said on Monday that 300,000 Nigerien children had to be treated for malnutrition at over 900 feeding centres. Another 300,000 children received food handouts. Physical and mental wasting because of poor nutrition was found in 11.8 percent of Nigerien children.

There are also major feeding operations in Mali, Mauritania and Burkina Faso, all of which have acute malnutrition rates between 11 and 12 percent.

“Malnutrition does not simply disappear with the arrival of the new harvest and return the next lean season. WFP and our partners are fighting a battle that cannot be won over a few weeks or months. It will take years, and require the sustained support of the international community,” Jean-Jacques Graisse, WFP senior deputy executive director, said in Dakar.

“There is no vaccine against malnutrition - what we need is a commitment to rolling it back once and for all. It will take time, but we must do it. Malnutrition means that generation after generation is currently seeing their human potential compromised,” he said.

Critical response

According to the aid NGO Oxfam (UK), the average number of food emergencies in Africa has nearly tripled since the mid-1980s, but responses have become increasingly blunt nosed.

While spending on food and humanitarian aid has increased, aid for agricultural production within sub-Saharan Africa dropped by 43 percent between 1990-92 and 2000-02, the charity said in a report in July this year.

Although malnutrition is related to food intake, aid agencies and NGOs say disease, the availability of water and sanitation facilities and childcare practices all play major parts in stunting development.

Oxfam has criticised the international community’s approach to hunger, saying that poverty, not hunger, is the main cause of food emergencies, and that food aid should “not be viewed as the inevitable default response to food insecurity”.

WFP’s Graisse agreed that the focus of donor funds on hunger relief comes at the expense of development and poverty-oriented projects.

“The amount of money we receive today is basically aimed at nutritional programmes for children, much more than for programmes which would enable us to contribute to agricultural development,” he said. “At the moment our resources enable us to focus only on the most immediately vulnerable groups.”

Mali, Mauritania and Burkina Faso are all countries identified as chronically under-funded by the UN's humanitarian coordination agency (OCHA).
Author: IRIN
Source: IRIN
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