Blog - ECHO in the field

West Africa: Hundreds of thousands of children at risk of death

Aïcha and her baby

07/11/2011 – Recently most humanitarian discussions about the Sahel have focussed on security risks for those who have fled Libya to return to their homes in various Sahel countries, however  the most immediate and serious humanitarian concern facing these populations is due to a  food crisis that threatens to kill even more than the 300,000 children who are already dying annually in the region.

Sitting on the ground in her field, and nursing her baby, Aïcha doesn’t reveal any hint of the hardship she endures, despite the sorry state of her millet field. This year’s harvest will be poor in the region of Tahoua, in the south of Niger, where chronic deficits in food production are expected. In a country where 70% of the population live in poverty or extreme poverty, a poor harvest can spell disaster. Aicha is from one of these chronically and extremely poor households. Thanks to a cash transfer program run by Concern Worldwide funded by the Humanitarian Aid and Civil Protection Department of the European Commission – ECHO – Aïcha receives approximately 50 Euros (FCFA 30.000) per month during the lean season when farmers are waiting for the next harvest.  This permits Aïcha and the other beneficiaries like her to mitigate the negative effects of market fluctuations and to diversify the foods consumed in her household.

This year the arrival in the countries of the Sahel – Mali, Niger, Burkina Faso and even Chad and Mauritania – of repatriates from Libya and  the Ivory Coast where armed conflicts have forced Sahel immigrants to flee towards their countries of origin is further exacerbating the fragile situation that resembles a crisis even in a normal period . The exact number of such emigrants remains difficult to determine, but the effects of this huge wave of returnees are already being felt.

The majority of households in these countries depend on remittances from family members who have emigrated to work abroad. With so many who have now returned home from the Ivory Coast and Libya, hundreds of thousands of people find themselves in a destitute situation, deprived of those remittances and with additional mouths to feed at a time when the prices for basic foodstuffs are already excessive for such vulnerable households.

“The situation that is shaping up for 2012 will be distinctly worse than it has been in 2011 when one considers that in a country like Niger alone, 3 million people are already in need of food aid,” says Jan Eijkenaar, of the Office of the Humanitarian Aid and Civil Protection Department of the European Commission (ECHO), from its regional office in Dakar, Senegal.

In Niger, where 7 million people were affected by the food crisis of 2010, a similar crisis is once again looming, the government has put in place a plan for food support for 700,000 vulnerable people. To implement this plan, the government has put out calls for support from donors. The problem of food scarcity in Niger is compounded by the fact that food prices are already rising steeply. Compared with the same period last year, the average price for maize is already 16% higher, while the prices for imported rice and millet have risen 12% according to a specialised local news report (Bulletin du système d’information des marchés agricoles du Niger).

Good year or bad year, according to UNICEF 300,000 children die annually of malnutrition in the Sahel. This already is a veritable humanitarian disaster. The fact that this already horrifying figure may well rise in 2011-2012 if current predictions are borne out, makes the Sahel one of the biggest potential crises in the coming months. 

By Saïd Mbombo Penda
ECHO Regional Information Officer – West Africa

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