Reyna with the kids in Fiamah, Monrovia, Liberia

Sunday, March 4, 2012

History Repeats Itself: Hunger Crisis in the Sahel Region of West Africa

The overwhelming majority of people in America do not know true hunger. We might know what it feels like to be hungry, but we do not know what it means to feel the physical sensation of hunger plus the mental and emotional despair of not being able to fulfill that need. I have heard some people declare, "We were so poor we did not know where our next meal was coming from."  While that is the reality of some families at some point in time in our country which I don't want to dismiss, there is always a solution. If there is no money available to buy food, we can rely on friends and family, or on a church or government shelter or food pantry. This is called food security, and in America we have it. It is one of the greatest and most taken for granted blessings of living in this country.

In the Sahel region of West Africa, the reality is far different. This region, which lies just south of the Sahara Desert, includes the little-known countries of Mauritania, Mali, Niger, and Chad, and covers parts of Senegal, Burkina Faso, Nigeria, and Cameroon. The main reason the rest of the world is not very familiar with this area is because it remains one of the most under-developed places on the planet. The northern part of the Sahel is mostly desert, and the southern reaches are mostly savanna and bush, but the balance shifts with each passing year due to climate change. The Sahara desert spreads 30 miles further south every year, and this rate of desertification has doubled since the 1970's. The Sahel has been home to the Tuareg people group, a nomadic tribe originating in  North Africa, since the 4th or 5th century. It is also home to other Arabic and black African tribes, all of whom were left largely alone when their countries were carved out by the European powers and then again when those countries were granted independence. In these countries, the rule of law that emanates from the seat of government in the capital city does not reach these tribes. Indeed, the Sahel is a vast area sprinkled with remote rural villages linked by very poor roads or no roads at all. So the rich traditions and nomadic ways of these tribes, the Tuareg in particular, remained much the same up until the last 20 years.

The majority of villagers in the Sahel region rely on subsistence farming, on  their own livestock and agriculture, to survive. This region suffers from cyclic droughts, leading to chronic food insecurity. In plain English, the harsh climate and living conditions of this region create a "lean season" during the dry season every year. This lean season usually begins in May and lasts until October when the next harvest comes. During this time, people typically eat once a day and sometimes go up to 36 hours without eating. Even in a normal year, when crops are good, the rains are plentiful, and the harvest abundant, during this lean period, half of all the children in this region under the age of 5 suffer chronic malnutrition. But, this year is not a normal year.

This year, the rains failed to come, a drought ensued, and so now the lean season is already here in late February, a full 3 months before its usual arrival. This means that instead of families storing up food or preparing themselves for a 6 month lean season, they now face a full 9 months before they can reap a harvest again. And the amount of food they were able to store was considerably less because of the poor crop yields. Hunger is already hitting the rural populations hard. An aid worker with the humanitarian organization CARE in the capital city of Niger, Niamey, wrote on his blog about the 3 phases of hunger. He writes that the first phase drives villagers into the city to try to buy or beg for food when they have run out at home. The second phase leads to people knocking on the doors of residents in the capital city, looking for work to help them buy food or simply asking for food. He goes on to say that the third phase is when the people stop asking, they are too weak to keep looking, they often just camp out and hope that someone will help them or they just wait to die. This aid worker said that the first phase is happening in Niamey right now, but  from past experience he knows that it only takes weeks to get to that third phase.

The drought is not the only component that makes this year unique. A conflict between the Tuareg people group and government forces has arisen in the north of Mali, and that has caused a flood of refugees into neighboring countries, often directly into those areas that are already suffering from severe food shortages, and the hunger crisis is just multiplied. The latest estimates show that within the last month, 130, 000 Malians have been displaced by the fighting between the Tuareg rebels and the government forces. 60, 000 people have been displaced inside of Mali, and another 69,000 outside of  Mali, with an estimated 29,000 refugees making their way into Niger, 22, 000 in Mauritania, and about 18,000 into Burkina Faso.

This is not the first time that the Tuareg rebels have fomented a rebellion ,but this is one of  the strongest stands they have made, and it comes at a disastrous time. Their presence was reportedly strengthened in the last several months by the return of  Tuareg fighters from Libya, where they defended the Qaddafi regime, with whom they have had a long-standing alliance. The group of fighters organized themselves as the AZAWAD National Liberation Movement and stated their demand for independence for the northern region of Mali where they make their home. This is just the latest in a long history of rebellions stretching back to the early 20th century when the Tuaregs fought against French colonial rule. After Mali and Niger achieved independence in 1960, the Tuareg took up the fight to become autonomous and form their own sovereign state. There was one more major rebellion in the early 90's, and now in 2012 the cause has been renewed. The rebels have attacked northern towns and government bases in Mali. So far, the rebellion has not spread to other countries where the Tuareg reside, but the flight of people from Mali is making an already bad situation, especially in Niger, even worse.

One Malian man, Moussa Jibou, told the BBC that he left his family home in Menaka, a northern town, and fled to Niger, leaving everything behind. "It was a question of saving our lives, so we had to come", he said. The sad reality, though is that they will not find much assistance in Niger, the country in the Sahel that has been hit the hardest by this drought. Nearly half of the people of Niger, an estimated 5 1/2 million people, do not have enough to eat. A mother, Dije Ousmana, told CARE workers that she tries not to think about the 3 babies that she has lost in previous years during the "lean season", when food was hard to come by.  But now this year, times are even harder, and she has a 2 month-old baby named Abdulahadi, whom she has lost her ability to nurse. She watches him wail to be fed, but as she puts him to the breast, there is no milk for him. She told the CARE worker that she had not eaten yet that day.

This is the tragic face of true hunger, and as a mother who has nursed three children, I cannot imagine the despair of not being able to feed your child and not having any alternatives. To think that this baby might die, and many others in the course of this hunger crisis in the Sahel, when the shelves of our grocery stores here in America are lined with food for families and formula for babies. We only have to drive 5 minutes from our house to fulfill any food craving that we might have. It seems a huge injustice that we in America and much of the Western world have an abundance while people in places like Niger are dying for lack of food or access to it. Isn't there a way that we can transfer some of our abundance to them? This is one solution, and this is where humanitarian aid comes in, but it is not as easy as it sounds, and rarely does it solve the problem.

Aid agencies are raising the alarm about this hunger crisis in the Sahel, hoping to avert the famine that hit Somalia and other parts of East Africa last year and is still ongoing. They have asked for $735 million to respond to this crisis, and so far only about $150 million has been pledged. The UN says that is had enough emergency food to feed 2 million people for a month, but this is hardly an adequate response when you consider that the number affected in the Sahel right now stands at around 11 million ,a number that is sure to rise, and that the "lean season" is expected to last for 9 months this year because of the drought and crop failure last fall. This crisis is highlighting the fact that while humanitarian aid has its place,and is the quickest and most effective way to respond to the emergency,  long-term development in this region would do so much more towards preventing a crisis like this and would ultimately cost far less money. The Sahel has long been ignored by aid agencies, partly because the harsh landscape makes it very hard for workers to reach people living in the rural areas. Aid programs are focused in the capital cities, like Bamako,Mali, Nouakchott, Mauritania, and Niamey, Niger, and seldom reach those rural and nomadic populations living in the far reaches of those countries that are part of the Sahel. Mauritania has the world's least amount of potable water, and 1/3 of the population already suffers from severe food insecurity. Niger and Mauritania are rated by the UN as two of the world's poorest and underdeveloped countries. Niger also has one of the world's lowest literacy rates and the  world's highest maternal mortality rate, with 1 in 7 women dying in childbirth, a horrifying statistic that long-term and targeted development projects could help improve.

This is actually the third time in a decade that the Sahel region has faced severe food shortages. As was mentioned before, this region is so underdeveloped that it is always classified as food insecure, and therefore always teeters only a step or two away from a hunger crisis. So why not look at the root causes of of the food insecurity of this region ,and address those through long-term development projects instead of waiting for an emergency to respond to? This is not just the responsibility of the aid organizations. Indeed, the governments of these countries need to take seriously their responsibility to care for all their citizens, even those nomadic tribes in the far reaches of their countries that the decision makers in the capital have little in common with. But it is precisely their lack of care that makes it even more critical for humanitarian organizations to work with local tribesmen and leaders to tackle some of the problems that exacerbate their food insecurity. Access to basic services like health care, sanitation services,and clean water needs to be vastly improved. Indeed, one of the main reasons the country of Niger has the highest rate in the world of mothers dying in childbirth is because the majority of mothers do not live with in close distance of a hospital. Governments and aid organizations also need to take a closer look at the issue of climate change and face the realities of how this is affecting the Sahel region, which is becoming increasingly desertified each year. This trend, if not reversed, will lead to more cyclic droughts, which in turn will lead to greater food insecurity. Agricultural techniques need to be improved to adapt to climate change, at the same time respecting the traditional nomadic ways of some of these tribes that inhabit the Sahel.

 Measures such as these will not only improve the region's ability to deal with climate change and increase their food security, but they would also be measurably more cost-effective. It costs 10 to 20 times more money to airlift food into a region, as is being done now in the Sahel to try to meet the needs of the millions of people who find themselves desperately hungry, than it does to ship food for a regular feeding program as part of a development project or a farming initiative. It costs $80 a day for an aid organization to treat a malnourished child, but only $1 a day to prevent that malnutrition from happening through school feeding programs, basic health services, food starter kits,and the like. The Sahel region is a very harsh place to live in and to work in. It is difficult to get to the people that need help, but it needs to made more of a priority so that emergencies such as the hunger crisis taking place now are fewer and far between.

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