Despite the prospect of good harvests this year, aid agencies are once again warning of food insecurity in Africa’s Sahel region. They are particularly concerned about northern Mali, where most families earn their livings from livestock. Many of the animals have been stolen or have died since conflict erupted in the north early last year.
The U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs says that there has been a “significant deterioration” in the food security situation in northern Mali since last year. Regional security issues, coupled with rising food prices and the loss of income-earning animals, have left more than 3.5 million people without enough to eat.
A recent joint survey by the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization [FAO], the World Food Program [WFP] and the Malian government found that between 70 percent and 90 percent of the population will be in need of food aid until at least the end of December.
"The situation in northern Mali is a matter of deep concern from our side because we know that there has been an accumulation of different crises," said Patrick David, deputy coordinator for the FAO’s Sub-Regional Emergency Operations and Rehabilitation Office in the Sahel. "As you know, the entire Sahel region was hit by a food crisis in 2012. On top of that, Mali faced insecurity and political problems, which led to a massive displacement of population and total disruption of [the] economy because it was a war zone."
David said that those families who depend on animals for their livelihoods have been particularly hard hit.
"The majority of the population is pastoralists in the north. And these people faced some problems during the conflict because some of them have been looted, their cattle has been looted," he said. "And they lost access to veterinary services for the animals and their transhumance ways have been disrupted as well. So it was difficult for them to access the grazing areas."
Al Hassan Cisse, the regional food security advocacy coordinator for aid agency Oxfam, said that late, erratic rains this year also have hurt the herders.
He said the prolonged period of drought this year has created a lot of concern for pastoralists. The growth of vegetation was delayed, he said, leaving animals with little or nothing to eat. Many watering holes ran dry. He said that while many of the watering holes now are beginning to fill up, many also remain empty, particularly in Gao.
The loss of even just one animal represents a huge economic loss to a herder. Oxfam says it can take at least three years to rebuild a small stock of sheep or goats, and as many as 10 years to rebuild a lost herd of cattle.
Cisse said not only are herders struggling to keep their animals alive, but rising food prices coupled with declining animal prices have greatly hurt the herders’ ability to buy food for themselves and their families.
Oxfam and the FAO say they have been working to distribute food to herders, restock lost animals, provide veterinary services, refill empty watering holes and engage herders in cash-for-work programs to help ease their burdens.
As more internally displaced persons and Malian refugees who fled to neighboring countries begin to return, though, aid agencies say that the food security situation in northern Mali could get worse before it gets better.