DAKAR, SENEGAL— Severe food shortages have hit 18 million people across nine countries this year in Africa's Sahel region, following unpredictable and insufficient rains. The region bordering the Sahara Desert has had three severe food crises in four years, and international aid agencies say it is time to break the cycle of food insecurity in the Sahel.
As this year's emergency winds down, the question on aid workers' minds is, "How can the Sahel break from its recurring cycle of food crises?"
U.N. Regional Humanitarian Coordinator for the Sahel, David Gressly, said now is the time to end chronic food insecurity.
“If we do not seize the opportunity in 2013, there is a good chance that this whole issue will be forgotten until the next drought and we will be asking ourselves the same set of questions. So we need to take this opportunity in 2013,” Gressly said.
Survival mode creates vulnerabilities
During a crisis, Gressly said hungry families are forced to eat one or two meals a day, take their children out of school, sell off livestock and go into debt. These coping mechanisms make them more vulnerable to future crises.
That is what has happened in the Sahel. Many of the affected families this year had not yet recovered from previous crises.
Aid agencies sent in food and emergency assistance. They handed out drought-resistant seeds and improved fertilizers, supplied medicine for livestock, and worked to improve irrigation and grain storage facilities.
Gressly said these measures dealt with the short-term needs, but the work should not stop when the crisis abates.
“And I think now there is an understanding that a very targeted program looking at these 18 million people affected this year, working with them to find ways so they do not have to make the kinds of decisions to survive in a crisis of a drought, for example, that compromises their long-term future,” he said.
Aid agencies say they are working to build the "resilience" of the most vulnerable communities, but more needs to be done.
Gressly said this means reducing chronic child malnutrition, improving irrigation and drainage systems, diversifying food sources, finding better ways to preserve food stocks, and addressing potentially harmful cultural practices.
“One example of that is the promotion of exclusive breastfeeding. There is a practice in many communities across the Sahel to provide water to young infants under the age of six months because of the heat," he said. "But unfortunately the same water that is given, in addition to breast milk, is often contaminated and makes the children sick. It starts a cycle, a downward spiral really, towards severe malnutrition. So simply by changing that behavior is a good way to prevent.”
Gressly said in Chad, aid agencies have been constructing dams to store water during rainy season that can later be used for irrigation.
The regional food security advocacy coordinator for British aid group Oxfam, Al Hassan Cisse, said better grain storage and programs like universal health insurance are other keys to resilience.
“Building the resilience of poor people means investing in food reserves because one of the aggregating factors of food crisis over the past year is the high food price," said Cisse. "Having food reserves and having social protection that target poor people and combining those two measures will help people build their resilience and be able to address future food crises.”
Cost-efficient measures crucial
Aid agencies also say that prevention is cheaper than treatment.
According to one recent estimate by U.N. agencies and NGO's, it costs just one dollar to keep a child from slipping into malnutrition, whereas it costs $80 to treat that child once malnutrition has set in.
Experts say there is a growing political will to respond quickly to emergencies, but also to address their underlying causes.
Countries like Niger were quick to react to this year's food crisis and call for international assistance.
But Senegalese Association for the Promotion of Grassroots Development representative Saliou Sarr said communities must also be involved in finding solutions.
He said it is often government officials and intellectuals, not those at the crisis site, who are diagnosing the problems. Sarr said it is fundamental that local residents be included at the beginning, during, and after a crisis. He said governments must work with farmers and aid agencies to modernize farming equipment and methods to reverse environmental degradation and improve harvests.