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CARE International is calling on the international community to act now to help nearly 10 million people facing hunger in the Sahel region of West Africa. The alarm was raised early: the governments of Niger, Mali and Chad have all declared a disaster and have appealed for international help. If action is taken now, there is still time to prevent more families from plunging into a humanitarian disaster, and to provide urgently-needed assistance to those already in crisis.
The worst-affected countries are Niger, Chad and Mali, where erratic rains and an attack of pests and locusts destroyed entire harvests, leaving families with nothing to eat through this year’s hungry season. In Niger alone, 5.4 million people in Niger are at risk of hunger; at least 1.3 million of those are in critical need of food and assistance now.
“Some families are already down to just one meal a day of watered-down millet porridge,” said Johannes Schoors, CARE’s Country Director in Niger. “In a normal year, the hunger season doesn’t start until April or May, but this year, it has already started. Adding to the problem, the worst-hit regions are scattered on the map. There are pockets of severely affected people, which makes it difficult and costly to reach them.”
Last week, the European Union made a critical contribution by doubling its humanitarian aid to Africa's Sahel area, but much more is needed.
“The world needs to accept that many parts of Niger and the Sahel are now in a state of chronic crisis,” said Schoors. “Many families have still not yet recovered from the food crisis of 2010. While families in critical need today need emergency assistance, we also need to find long-term solutions to help people survive in an environment that is becoming more difficult to live in because of a changing climate. Rains are shorter and less frequent; pasture land is turning into desert. This is changing the way of life for the people in this region, and we need to support them to adapt and increase their resilience.”
While the peak of the crisis is expected to hit in March, in some areas families have already exhausted their food supplies and are selling their animals and household items to buy food. Without animals like goats and cows to provide milk and cheese, families lose a vital source of nutrition, putting children at risk of malnutrition and stunting, and leaving families without a source of income.
To make things worse, many families have lost a crucial survival option: finding work in neighbouring countries. Many Nigeriens who went to Côte d’Ivoire, Libya and Nigeria to find work have come home early because of instability or conflict. Many workers came home with nothing; some even had to borrow money in order to return home, plunging their families further into debt or crisis.
CARE has already started an emergency response, and we are adapting our ongoing programs to help people cope with the crisis:
- Providing cash-for-work to help families buy food and protect their assets
- Training government nurses on prevention and management of malnutrition at the community level
- Strengthening community cereal banks so families can buy food at reasonable prices, stocking animal feed banks and reinforcing community-based early warning systems
- Working with women’s savings and loans groups to develop alternative sources of food such as community vegetable gardens and to increase community resilience
“We know what works, but it must be done on a larger scale, and it must be done now,” said Amadou Sayo, CARE’s Regional Emergency Coordinator for West Africa. “We see every day that the situation is grave and getting worse. The longer we wait, the more lives will be at risk, and the costlier the response will be.”
CARE urges institutional donors to support the following actions now:
- Provide cash transfers and cash-for-work to help families purchase food. Despite many regions suffering poor harvests, food is available on the market. Donors must support families to purchase food, supporting the local economy and giving people choice. Large scale distributions of food are costly, disrupt the local market, and will not arrive in time to prevent a crisis.
- Support malnourished children now. Providing food supplements to slightly malnourished children now will help prevent children from sliding into severe malnutrition, which can result in hospitalization and long-term effects on a child’s mental and physical growth.
- Support government and community disaster risk reduction activities such as by selling grain at affordable prices for the most vulnerable families and to replenish the stocks of community cereal banks, providing fodder for animals for small pastoralist families so their herds don’t die, or strategic de-stocking activities.
Read more stories from the West Africa Food Crisis: