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West Africa Faces Drought-Induced Hardships

Southern and eastern Africa are getting lots of attention for difficult drought conditions, but parts of impoverished West Africa also face lean months ahead due to poor rains and chronic poverty.

A fisherman paddles around the dwindling Lake Chad that borders Niger and Nigeria, looking for fish.

He says the lake is getting shallower and shallower, and the fish smaller and smaller.

A regional spokesman for the United Nations World Food Program, Marcus Prior, recently went to parts of southeastern Mauritania, equally devastated by a lack of rain. "There were pockets where it was quite evident where there had been extreme drought and field after field after field of sorghum had been dried by the sun and many of the villagers were complaining they were simply not going to harvest anything at all from their sorghum crop this year," he said.

But he says generally 2006 does look better than 2005, when there was hunger in parts of the region, most notably in Niger. "2006 certainly looks to be a better year from a general perspective. The harvests at the end of last year were very good and that is a matter of some encouragement. But it is very clear that the Sahel region will not just get back on its feet from one year's good harvest. There are chronic long-term development issues and food security issues which mean that there will be many people in the region who continue to need food assistance in 2006," he said.

Some arid pockets in Niger, Mali, Chad, Mauritania and the Central African Republic are believed to have only just a few months remaining before their crops run out.

When that happens, farmers and herders sell off their possessions to buy food, heads of households migrate to nearby towns, while those left behind fend off starvation by eating leaves and termites.

A Dakar-based emergency preparedness coordinator for the British-based group Oxfam, Matthew Snell, explains this drought-induced cycle of poverty. "Each year, your ability to produce enough food for yourself diminishes and you have to sell off your productive assets, whether that be goats, small ruminants, whether it be spades, hoes, whatever else it is. You may actually get to the stage where you start having to take out loans and so you start running up debt. You never actually get to a level where you can get back up to your basic minimum economic threshold where your way of life is viable," he said.

Snell says unless there is a huge crisis, international donors often overlook West Africa. "I think that it is hugely important that people take stock of the situation in West Africa. You have seven of the poorest countries in the world in West Africa. There is no escaping that fact. I think that the only way that we can hope to avert future crises like the one we saw last year is to link long-term funding and sustained development projects so that we avoid emergency scrambles, (so) that we give people the choice and the means to improve their own ability to respond to what are very difficult conditions," he said.

Aid workers say digging wells and building dykes across the region is one example of what is needed to help end the cycle of poverty and make recurring drought more manageable. The next rainfall is not expected before July.