Starving in the Sahel

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Aug 312005
 
Authors: Meg Burd

As the rains continued their refusal to fall, the people in West Africa watched the lands dry up, their crops wither and entire herds of livestock die from lack of grazing pastures. Their food sources devastated, a food crisis seemed imminent.

While hit briefly by some rain in 2004 after a three-year drought, the moisture provided conditions for yet another looming crisis. Breeding, thanks to the rain, locust swarms filled the land, destroying crops and laying vast stretches of land fallow. Just recently, another crisis struck the area as monetary assistance by aid organizations began to swiftly dry up.

A series of catastrophes, this and long-term poverty suffered by the Sahel region of Africa, has now resulted in a devastating food crisis in West Africa.

"Although Niger is the worst-hit country, the food crisis also threatens lives and livelihoods in Mali, Mauritania, Burkina Faso and parts of Nigeria," reports the non-profit aid organization Oxfam International, whose stated mission is battling poverty and injustice throughout the world.

The food crisis has indeed touched a vast amount of people in West Africa. "For the Sahel region, it is estimated that a total of 9,366,804 million people… have been negatively affected by the combined impact of the locust upsurge and reduced rainfall," the United Nations reported in a March humanitarian appeal.

Oxfam International notes the nomadic populations are particularly hit hard, losing an estimated 70 percent of their animals. "For an animal breeder in Niger, this is catastrophic," says Coco McCabe, the media/information officer for Oxfam America via e-mail. "[It is] the equivalent of people in the US finding their bank accounts emptied and house repossessed."

This food crisis will likely be felt well into the future of this region as well; health and relief organizations report malnutrition amongst children in the region, something that could affect them throughout their life. Future crops likewise will take a hit, as farmers are turning to their unplanted corn seed for food. Cholera outbreaks also have seen a rise in the area just in this last week, due to contaminated water and food spreading the outbreak.

Besides all these problems, organizations such as Oxfam point out that the crisis will likely only be repeated and perpetuated due to the underlying issue of poverty the region faces.

"It's true that erratic rainfall and infestations of locusts in parts of the Sahel were the immediate trigger of the current food crisis millions now face, but the real underlying problem for so many people in that dry part of the world is chronic poverty," McCabe notes.

"The answer to the kind of calamity we are now witnessing is to address the long-term poverty. We need to invest in methods that will allow people to support themselves and build up their assets," McCabe emphasizes.

McCabe says the international community has been slow in responding to this crisis, and even when doing so, has yet to meet UN appeals. As the UN reports, countries have pledged $2.7 million to its emergency operation in Mali, although this is far from the much-needed $10.9 million that was requested. On Aug. 30th, the Reuters news agency reports the donor funds are severely drying up for organizations such as the UN World Food Programme, which has been attempting to provide relief to West Africa.

There are ways that we as a country and as a community can and indeed should assist. Besides contributing as a nation and individuals to aid organizations that might assist in this immediate crisis, McCabe suggests we all take other actions to see this crisis ended as well.

"Students can contact their representatives to let them know they care about the developing world and about issues such as the Millennium

Development Goals (agreed upon by all 191 member countries of the UN; the first goal is to halve by 2015 the number of people living on less than a dollar a day and who suffer from hunger) and the Billion Dollar Fund (into which UN member states would pay so that when countries need assistance, the money would be available immediately and there would be no need to wait for UN appeals to be filled)," McCabe says.

The crisis in the region threatens to grow worse daily and with new worries and a shortage of funds, the situation is likely to deteriorate rapidly. It is time we step up and assist in both a short and long term fashion.

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