Up to 23 million people in Niger, Chad, Mali, Mauritania, Burkina Faso and some parts of Senegal are facing a food crisis. Erratic rainfall, droughts and insect infestations have led to poor harvests and could cause major malnutrition.

Malnutrition rates are generally high in the Sahel region, particularly affecting children under two. The peak of malnutrition rates will start to be seen from April. Unless action is taken now, over one million children under the age of five are likely to suffer from acute malnutrition.

Last week, I was sent to Dakar, Senegal, with the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies as part of a team assessing the impact of drought in the Sahel. We are here for a month to support the national Red Cross organisations in these countries in producing a plan of action. My role is to provide advice and communications materials to generate public awareness, support fundraising and advocate for long-term solutions to drought.

Critical situation

After a week of briefings, meetings and planning in Dakar, I am now in Burkina Faso visiting some of the worst affected areas. In the northern Sahel and central plateau regions of the country, bordering Mali and Niger, the food situation is already critical and, of 5.4 million people dependant on livestock living in these areas, around 1.6 million are at risk of a food crisis .

Many people have not recovered from a similar emergency in 2010 and there is expected to be a cereal production deficit of 31,600 tonnes in this region this year (16 per cent lower than the previous year) as well as there being less pasture available for livestock.

The underlying issue of poverty means the most vulnerable households are not able to cope with rising food prices to purchase the food available in the markets. In October 2011, the Burkinabé government reported the price of maize had increased by 35 per cent compared to 2010, although the price of millet has remained stable. However, with recent erratic rainfalls thousands of families have not been able to build up enough cereal stocks to see them through the lean season. As a result they are turning to coping mechanisms, such as:

  • searching for wild food
  • reducing the number of meals they eat
  • depending on friends and extended family
  • sending girls to the city to work as home help

Unsustainable

However these strategies are not sustainable as the hunger season – which normally starts around April – has started much earlier this year and there are many months to go until the next harvest begins around October. As people continue to go to bed hungry, malnutrition is increasing and thousands of lives are at risk.

Conflict in Mali during January, has further compounded the situation as around 3,000 Malian Tuaregs have fled across the border into Burkina Faso,  arriving in communities in Burkina Faso where people are already struggling to get enough to eat.

With CHF 113,500 from the Federation’s Disaster Relief Emergency Fund, the Burkinabé Red Cross Society is assisting those in need through cash vouchers and nutrition and hygiene promotion. However, much more money will be needed to scale up the response.

How are we helping?

As well as planning for the current emergency it will be vital to invest in more long-term programmes to help build people’s ability to cope with future crises. The Burkinabé Red Cross, with support from the Spanish and Belgian Red Cross, already has established programmes in the province of Yagha, which include:

  • improving people’s nutrition in affected communities
  • supporting women’s groups working on crop production and market gardening.

The situation is critical, but not hopeless, and there is still time to make a difference. Please donate to our Disaster Fund today.