The countries of the Sahel, a semi-arid region of Africa that stretches across the continent below the Sahara desert, rank among the lowest on the Human Development Index and measures of GDP per capita. For more than a year, experts have been warning about mass starvation in the region as an enduring drought and various wars take their toll. But now, finally, some good news: a large humanitarian response to the crisis has helped avoid a disaster. Factors contributing to this success include affected countries’ openness about their food insecurity and effective early interventions to avert the impending crisis. Moreover, greater-than-expected rainfall has mitigated the drought and prevented the worst predictions about crop failure from coming true. Crop yields in some areas should be strong in coming months.
On balance, the immediate food crisis in the Sahel seems under control, at least for now, but the underlying problems have not gone away. As I’ve written previously, drought has caused food insecurity for millions of people in the Sahel over the past decade, and some 18 million people remain food insecure. With good reason, relief organizations are concerned about international attention being diverted from the region. As Issiaka Ouandaogo of Oxfam in Burkina Faso said to IPS, “We’re in crisis every other year…So even when we have a good year, 20 percent of the population in the Sahel still faces food insecurity.”
Tackling the crisis in the Sahel involves simultaneously managing urgent crises while making the longer-term investments required to build resiliency. While the recent rains are welcome, the result in Niger has been severe flooding which has uprooted some half a million people, wiped out crops, and threatened to exacerbate the spread of cholera. The conflict in Mali also continues to destabilize the region and add to food insecurity. More than a quarter of a million Malians have been displaced into other countries in the region, and five million Malians require humanitarian assistance. Conflict has also hindered international efforts to combat locusts originating in Mali–the voracious insects pose yet another threat to regional food security. While some form of military intervention against radical militant groups controlling the north of Mali seems more likely by the day, questions of when and how this could occur and what the potential fallout for the region would be—the intervention could involve an estimated 7,000 to 10,000 troops—remain unanswered.
The UN, recognizing the Sahel’s “perfect storm of vulnerability,” is working to create an Integrated Regional Strategy on the Sahel, and Ban Ki-moon has appointed a special envoy for the region. Meanwhile, continuing to build agricultural resiliency is a priority for those working in the region. Possible elements of a patchwork of solutions include more attention to the unique needs of small-scale farmers and pastoralists, plus interventions adapted to local contexts, like irrigation and better access to drought-resistant seeds and other agricultural inputs. Further experimentation with cash vouchers is also important.
But ultimately, the Sahel’s food insecurity issues cannot be addressed without improvements in regional security and local governance.