The plants tell the real story of what’s happening in west Africa.
The sight of acacia trees, thorny shrubs and giant baobab trees on the arid plains of north-west Burkina Faso take me back to GCSE Geography, when I learned that these trees can withstand the driest weather cycles in some of the most arid places on earth.
The acacia tend to stunt their growth and drop their leaves to conserve water in the dry seasons. For the same purpose, thorny shrubs grow prickly spikes to ward off animals looking to eat their food-manufacturing leaves. Baobabs hold as much moisture as they can in the bark of their enormous trunks.
But in the province of Yagha in Burkina Faso this dry season, even these hardy plants are limp, wilting and dying. Like the animals and people around them, the trees are struggling to cope with the effects of a drought that threatens the lives of over 15.6 million people across seven countries in the Sahel region of west Africa.
Dropping water levels
With each new day, ground water levels here are dropping farther beyond the reach of tree roots; and similarly the water levels have plummeted in wells that provide drinking and gardening water for the village of Niaptana.
“We have to lower our buckets deeper now to fetch the water. Only a few weeks ago, we could draw some water from there,” Habiba Ama says, animatedly pointing at a metal mark which also serves as a measuring unit for the hand-dug well at Niaptana gardening centre.
Habiba and tens of other women and children from the village take turns to tend to the vegetable allotment which has become a vital source of food for hundreds of families in Niaptana.
She says: “We are fortunate that we can at least still grow and harvest vegetables here. In other neighbouring villages, they are down to living off aid completely.
“We will keep working in this garden for as long as we have water. It’s the only way our families can survive,” Habiba said.
The Niaptana women’s gardening co-operative was set up in August 2011 with the help of the Red Cross. The women of Niaptana grow a wide variety of vegetables here, including tomatoes, cabbages, peas and onions.
A varied diet
Hortense Sombie, the Burkinabe Red Cross development co-ordinator said: “People here are in a desperate situation because the harvests have been very poor and they have very little to eat. Most are starting to eat the seeds they have been keeping to plant for the next farming season. This means the cycle of lack of food will persist even if the rains do come.
“The Red Cross is working hard to teach women to plant foods other than cereal crops, and vegetables, so that they can attain a more nutritious diet. We are also telling them that eating the staple millet alone offers insufficient nutrition. Their diets, and especially those of their young ones, need to be balanced.”
Very few, if any, can afford a balanced diet as food prices are soaring in this region. Sharp food price hikes have been recorded in the past few weeks, for local cereals such as millet, rice and maize, in Mali, Burkina Faso, Niger and Chad. This means that many vulnerable people across the Sahel could find it even harder to get enough to eat.
In Burkina Faso, millet prices are 85 per cent above the five-year average, and in Mali’s capital, Bamako, they are more than double, according to the UN World Food Programme .
About 2.8 million people in Burkina Faso – a fifth of the total population – need help, including half a million malnourished children . The situation has been made even worse by the impact of the ongoing armed violence in Mali. More than 60,000 people have fled the fighting and crossed the border into Burkina Faso – into areas which are already extremely vulnerable.
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