Refugees and patchy rains trigger new Sahel hunger crisis

UN asks for $100m as conflicts drive refugees into drought-stricken Sahel countries already experiencing food insecurity

About $100m (£60m) of funding is needed from international donors to pay for food-security programmes in the Sahel, the UN has warned, as more than 20 million people continue to face shortages.

The Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) and the UN's Sahel coordinator have renewed calls for emergency funds to address food shortages triggered by patchy rains and an influx of refugees, many of whom are fleeing unrest in neighbouring countries.

Conflict in the Central African Republic, Mali and Nigeria is straining already limited food supplies among host families and in refugee camps in Burkina Faso, Cameroon, Chad and Niger.

Nigeria's Boko Haram insurgency has driven more than 50,000 refugees into neighbouring Niger, according to Patrick David, deputy head of the FAO's Sahel office in Senegal. "The areas that receive the most refugees and displaced are Diffa and areas around Lake Chad. At the current pace, the most pessimistic forecasts project the presence of 100,000 refugees by the end of the 2014," he added.

More than 35,000 refugees from Mali need humanitarian assistance in Burkina Faso, David said.

In February, the UN appealed for $116m to support an extra 7.5 million people facing food shortages in the Sahel, part of a wider $2.2bn, three-year programme that aims to break a cycle of food insecurity in the region. So far, $16m has been received. Donors met 63% of the UN's Sahel appeal last year, which sought $1.7bn for emergency relief.

Low rainfall has worsened food security in Nigeria, Togo, Benin, Burkina Faso and Niger, while drought has prevented farmers in Senegal and Chad from planting crops, the UN said.

The FAO says it needs funds to buy herds, provide vaccinations and improve water access, which it has done for 1.2 million people. "FAO is supporting internally displaced, returnees and refugees and their host communities in Mali, northern Nigeria and Chad to restore or strengthen their livelihoods," David said.

"The assistance provided focuses on the distribution of agricultural inputs to enable them to plant and produce their own food. They also receive support in animal health, as displaced populations in the region often travel with their cattle, which is weakened especially as the pastoral lean season is ongoing and livestock is in a poor physical condition due to the lack of pasture."

Funds are needed to address the economic problems of poor and rural households, who "depend on casual labour for revenues [and] on markets to access food, and rely on damaging coping strategies, such as selling assets, reducing the number of meals or taking children out of school", the FAO said.

Robert Piper, who works in the region for the UN's Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, said the Sahel needs immediate help to end periodic food insecurity.

"If we are going to break out of this cycle of chronic crises across the Sahel region, emergency assistance to vulnerable farmers and pastoralists has to be considered a top priority," Piper said. "The best way to reduce tomorrow's emergency caseload is to help households protect their assets today," he added.

David said the FAO's three-year programme "was very much appreciated by the donor community and considered the right approach: a three-year timeframe with clear focus on building the resilience of vulnerable populations. In the coming months there is an urgent need to support livestock, flood plain recession and dry season agriculture."

Bukar Tijani, assistant director general at the FAO Africa office, said: "More should be done to protect the lives and livelihoods of vulnerable communities in a region that is so frequently affected by various shocks."

The Sahel experiences periodic droughts, which are linked to climate change. While fears of starvation are ever present, the last famine in the region was 30 years ago.

"UN agencies do not wait for famine anymore," David said. "They work together to reduce the chronic vulnerability and enhance the resilience of the Sahelian populations to reduce the possibilities of a famine to arrive."

• This article was corrected on 1 August 2014. The original said more than 332,000 refugees from Mali need humanitarian assistance in Burkina Faso.


Mark Anderson

The GuardianTramp

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