Last Friday we increased our assistance in Africa’s Sahel region with another 10 million EUR. You may remember my visit to the region last year, when we helped avoid a major humanitarian crisis. Now we are acting early with the hope to do the same, but the combination of bad harvest, rising food prices and returning migrant workers makes the situation in the region very risky. To tell you more, I have invited our regional information officer Said Mbombo Penda.
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 a particularly bad crop is expected. In a country where 70% of the population live in poverty or extreme poverty, a failed harvest can spell disaster. Aicha’s household is one of the chronically and extremely poor ones. Thanks to a cash transfer program of the European Commission, Aïcha receives approximately 50 Euros per month during the lean season while farmers are waiting for the next harvest. This allows her and the other beneficiaries to put some food on the table every day, despite the poor yield and the fluctuating prices.
The hunger risks in the Sahel countries – Mali, Niger, Burkina Faso, Chad and Mauritania – are threatening more people than usual. This is because thousands returned to these countries from Libya and the Ivory Coast, where they had worked before the recent turmoil forced them out. Now they are back home, where jobs are hard to get and where the loss of remittances has pushed more families into poverty.
“The situation that is shaping up for 2012 will be distinctly worse than it has been in 2011. In Niger alone, 3 million people are already in need of food aid,” warns Jan Eijkenaar from the European Commission’s regional humanitarian office in Dakar, Senegal.
In Niger, there are 7 million people like Aïcha and her baby who were affected by the food crisis of 2010. Now they are at risk of a similar crisis. Food scarcity is compounded by the steep increase of food prices. The price for maize is already 16% higher than a year ago, while the prices for imported rice and millet have risen 12%.
In Sahel, even a normal year is a crisis year – according to UNICEF 300,000 children die annually of malnutrition in the region. The risk of a food crisis in 2012 means this number can rise fast, blowing up into a massive humanitarian disaster. This makes Sahel one of the biggest potential crises of the coming months.