In Senegal two weeks ago, I spoke to Momodou Lamin Fye, the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies’ west Africa representative, and Nathalie Bonvin, regional food security, nutrition and livelihoods delegate. They explained the urgent need for funds, if people are to be able to plant crops before the rains begin.

It is now hungry season in west Africa

© Sarah Oughton/ BRC


The British Red Cross West Africa Food Crisis Appeal launched in March. Three months on, what is the situation?

Momodou: The next few months – June, July and August – will be critical. This is the rainy season before the next harvest in September, and it is also the hungry season. Imagine what that means to a household that, three months before the harvest, has already consumed all the resources they have. Even some of the seeds they need for next season may have been eaten.

In most countries in the region, crises have recurred with increasing regularity over the last decade – in 2005, 2008 and 2010 in Niger.

Some of the main causes include poor rainfall, poor education levels, lack of access to basic services, political instability and conflicts in the region, weak economies dependent on international markets, high population growth, increased urbanisation and rural exodus.

Repeated droughts and food crises have reduced vulnerable people’s ability to cope, giving them no time or chance to recover.

For the current crisis, we were accused of starting too early – of shouting too loud – but if it wasn’t for the proactive steps we’ve taken we would be in a much worse position now. As early as October, we saw this crisis coming and worked to avert it.

The Red Cross is providing emergency, life-saving interventions, while also building people’s long-term ability to cope with disasters.

How have instability and migration affected food security in west Africa?

Momodou: One of the biggest problems is the crisis in Mali. According to the UN, the situation has resulted in more than 170,400 refugees and over 167,200 displaced people inside Mali.

In Mauritania, Niger and Burkina Faso, people living in arid land and desert are also going to other areas, to find water. This can cause conflict between nomadic people and local farmers.

Many people from rural areas with nothing to eat go to the city to live with their relatives. This migration is affecting people in urban areas a lot, but people cannot go back – they have no rain, no agriculture and no livelihoods.

Elections, political crisis, violence are also major challenges. In a crisis there is often no focus on development, and very limited capacity to respond to major disasters.

West Africa is prone to epidemics of cholera, meningitis and yellow fever, and malaria is widespread. Does malnutrition affect the risks people face from these outbreaks?

Nathalie: Food insecurity affects nutrition, and malnourished children are more likely to die from these diseases. It won’t be said that they died of malnutrition, but that is what it is.

Chronic malnutrition can also lead to a major lack of development in the brain, keeping people within the poverty system. They are unable to get an education – because of the mental deficit as well as their financial one.

In disasters, illness can also be more likely. People are forced to desperate measures, such as drinking bad water.

If people fall ill, it affects the workforce. People are unable to work and if there is an epidemic, people may be forced to flee and abandon their farmland.

Can’t people sell or slaughter their animals to get food?

A communal garden in Burkina Faso

Momodou: Tribes such as the Al Pulaar and Hassaniya all rely on livestock farming. The animal is an important asset, like the house is for a western person. They can convert it to money, but will only do so if it’s really necessary.

The Pulaar would go hungry rather than slaughter their animals. Selling is a last resort. When you see she-goats being brought to the market, you know there is a big problem – it means that people really need the money. We were seeing she-goats being sold as early as October in some countries.

It’s the same principle as property. In the UK you could sell your house or use it as collateral, but you would only do it if absolutely necessary. If it’s a matter of life or death, you sell. It’s a coping mechanism, but it’s short-lived. If you sell your assets you have nothing left to survive.

How can communal gardens help prevent hunger?

Nathalie: We build communal gardens and teach people to tend them. It’s a way to improve people’s nutrition and give them an income. We also help farmers on the river basin through irrigation, so they are less subject to droughts.

We use a holistic approach. If you run a vegetable garden, you have to make sure people have access to water and irrigation, and that they know about hygiene and nutrition. It’s behaviour change that’s needed. Have the full package and it’s possible to make a difference.

In Mauritania for instance, they mostly just eat a lot of meat. Their diet is not very varied – they often use vegetables just for decoration. The problem is not only lack of food, but how it’s used as well.

For vegetable gardens, we also teach how to preserve and improve the crop, so the final product will be more profitable in the market. We sometimes provide machines for threshing grain – a more refined product can be sold at a higher price.

We teach people to dry their vegetables – for instance, tomatoes and cabbages – so that they can be stored and used later.

What is the outlook for 2012 like?

Momodou: If the rainy season is good, things will get a bit better. But if it is poor, it will be really traumatic.

If the rains start too early and then stop, it could have far-reaching consequences for communities that are already vulnerable. People will start growing, misreading the rainfall pattern. Then if the rain doesn’t continue, all the plants will die.

The rains can also bring flooding. In areas of northern Senegal and southern Mauritania, lots of food – particularly rice – is grown. Flooding can lead to the destruction of the rice fields. In parts of Senegal and Mauritania, salination of the river can also affect farming.

How important is it to act now?

It is cheaper to protect people's livelihoods than deliver aid

Nathalie: The problem is with the agricultural calendar. There are certain things that need to happen at certain stages. We want to distribute seed for cash crops – such as cereals, maize, and rice, which people can eat and sell – but we don’t have the funds available. We have a few weeks still to plant. It will have a huge impact on the yield if we miss the cash crop season.

Food can be distributed at any time – although access is harder in the rainy season. But the sooner the operation is started, the less risk of high malnutrition rates in children.

We started by launching the appeal early enough, but we are now entering the emergency phase where we have to focus on food distributions. It’s far cheaper to protect people’s livelihoods than deliver aid – procuring, transporting and delivering food is very expensive.

We can save people’s lives with food distribution, but then they’ll be in a very bad situation come next season.

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