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Analysts Watch Food Situation in West Africa

A mother holds her malnourished infant in a Medecins Sans Frontiers (Doctors Without Borders) feeding center in Zinder, Niger, one of the country's areas hardest hit by food shortages and hunger in 2010 (File)
A mother holds her malnourished infant in a Medecins Sans Frontiers (Doctors Without Borders) feeding center in Zinder, Niger, one of the country's areas hardest hit by food shortages and hunger in 2010 (File)

As famine continues to ravage the Horn of Africa, aid agencies and government officials remain on alert in West Africa as well, where drought, chronic malnutrition and poverty have led to devastating and recurrent food shortages endangering millions of people in recent years.

African finance ministers and central bank governors kicked off last week's annual African Caucus meeting in Congo's capital, Kinshasa, with a warning.

The finance minister for the Democratic Republic of Congo, Matata Ponyou, said the food supply in our respective countries has remained largely insufficient in meeting surges in demand, particularly when it comes to basic products. He said global warming has exacerbated that deficit and the current drought affecting the Horn of Africa should awaken us all to the threats looming over African agriculture.

Though climate change does indeed play a role, food security experts in West Africa say families in some regions are simply living so close to the edge that even a slight weather change, a sudden price hike or a brief period of civil unrest can spell hunger.

Take Niger as an example. The desert nation was the epicenter of a severe food crisis last year that put more than 10 million people across the eastern Sahel at risk, including half of Niger's population.

Irregular rainfall in 2009 led to poor harvests and shortages of water and grazing land for animals. But Niger is also one of the poorest countries in the world and consistently reports alarming levels of child malnutrition.

This year, although the rains have come - albeit a few weeks late in certain regions - aid workers say approximately 2 million people in Niger are at risk of not having enough food, whether the harvests are good or not.

Humanitarian workers are also keeping a close eye on the eastern Sahel as the war in Libya pushes tens of thousands of migrant workers home to Niger and Chad.

Oxfam's regional food security coordinator, Alassane Cisse, says for families still recovering from last year's food crisis, the return of these workers means more mouths to feed and the loss of remittance money, which are primary sources of income for many households. He says in certain regions that depended on food supplies from Libya, food prices also have risen by almost 50 percent.

Though food security experts in West Africa encourage investment in agriculture and increased food production, the real issue, they say, is access, not amount.

The regional emergency coordinator for the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, Patrick David, said rising prices for imported foods are causing concern throughout West Africa.

David says coastal countries import many food staples like rice and oil, the prices for which have been rising on a global level and remained high in July, particularly for grains. He says Liberia, Guinea and Guinea-Bissau have seen steep increases in prices, especially in urban areas. He notes the price of imported rice has risen 25 to 40 percent in some areas. And he says there is concern that these increases have led to fewer daily meals and a more limited variety of foods consumed.

David adds that continued insecurity in Ivory Coast is contributing to rising food prices and interruptions in supply, particularly in the western part of that country.

Across the border in eastern Liberia, he says the food situation remains precarious for tens of thousands of Ivorian refugees who are still too afraid to return home.