Call for urgent action in Sahel to prevent humanitarian emergency

Levels of malnutrition in areas of west Africa becoming dangerously high, warns Oxfam, as the NGO launches an emergency appeal

• Map of the Sahel food crisis

The food crisis in the Sahel will turn into a humanitarian emergency unless urgent action is taken, said the NGO Oxfam as it launched a $36.3m (£23m) emergency appeal for west Africa on Friday.

Levels of malnutrition in areas of Chad, Burkina Faso, Mali, Mauritania, Niger and northern Senegal are becoming dangerously high, warns the NGO, hovering between a rate of 10% and 15%. Some areas have exceeded 15%, which is considered the emergency threshold by the Integrated Food Security Phase Classification.

Among the indicators used to determine famine conditions are when acute malnutrition rates exceed 30% and when recorded deaths are more than two per 10,000 people a day.

The governments of Burkina Faso, Chad, Mali, Mauritania and Niger have already declared emergencies and called for international assistance.

According to figures published by the UN last week, more than 13 million people are at risk of hunger in the Sahel, with more than 10 million now considered food-insecure. More than 1 million children are at risk of severe malnutrition.

The situation in the region is being blamed on a mix of drought, high food prices and conflict. According to Oxfam, food prices across the region are up to 50% higher than the five-year average, and could rise even further during the peak of the "hunger season" – traditionally the lean period between harvests when food stocks dwindle – in July and August. Warnings were sounded earlier this year that the hunger season would begin early due to poor harvests. It is understood that this is already happening in the Tillabery region in western Niger. Families in this area have already started to migrate to the cities in search of food and work. The Niger government says more than 30,000 children have dropped out of school as a result.

The impact of fighting in Mali is also taking its toll. According to the latest figures from the UN, around 140,000 people have been displaced because of conflict between the Tuareg ethnic group and the government since mid-January, many fleeing to Niger, Burkina Faso and Mauritania. The government of Mauritania estimates that 31,000 refugees have arrived in the country so far. On Monday, the UN refugee agency, the UNHCR, said an average of 1,500 refugees were arriving into the country every day. The agency is appealing for $35.6m to respond to the crisis.

The Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) said agricultural production across the Sahel is down 25% from 2010. The grain harvest is down by 1.4 million tonnes for the six affected countries. Mauritania has been the hardest hit, with a 52% drop in crop production from last year, while Chad's food production is down by 50% and Niger's by 27%.

While harvests in neighbouring Nigeria, Benin and Ghana have been reasonable, any surplus is not expected to be enough to meet the food needs in the Sahel.

Last month, the UN convened an emergency meeting to discuss the unfolding situation in the Sahel and to make a fresh appeal for money from the international community. The UN has said it needs $725m this year to address the crisis. By mid-February only around 20% had been raised. After the meeting, the head of the FAO, José Graziano da Silva, said there was only two or three months in which to act to avoid a crisis on the scale of that seen in east Africa over the past year.

Despite early warning systems indicating a possible emergency in east and the Horn of Africa in 2010, it was only when three areas of Somalia were declared famine zones in July last year that the internernational community scale-up its relief efforts. A report by Oxfam and Save the Children, published in January, concluded that the international response to the crisis was too late and that early intervention could have saved thousands of lives.

"Millions of people are on the threshold of a major crisis," said Mamadou Biteye, Oxfam regional director for west Africa. "All signs point to a drought becoming a catastrophe if nothing is done soon. The world cannot allow this to happen. A concerted aid effort is needed to stop tens of thousands dying due to international complacency.

"We witnessed last year the situation spiralling out of control in east Africa as the aid community failed to act swiftly. The worst can be avoided and thousands of lives will be saved if we act now. It's that simple."

Oxfam is the first NGO to launch an emergency appeal this year for the whole of the Sahel. However, Christian Aid said it is using money left over from the west Africa appeal it launched in 2010 to help fund programmes in northern Burkina Faso and parts of Mali. The 2010 appeal raised $2.5m (£1.6m). In January, Save the Children launched an appeal for $47.3m (£30m) for projects in Niger.


Liz Ford

The GuardianTramp

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