West Africa’s Sahel region still in crisis and requires urgent support, says UN official

Mothers and their babies wait at a maternal health care centre in Niamey, Niger, where WFP provides supplementary feeding. Photo: WFP/Rein Skullerud

Mothers and their babies wait at a maternal health care centre in Niamey, Niger, where WFP provides supplementary feeding. Photo: WFP/Rein Skullerud

West Africa, Sahel – A senior United Nations humanitarian official today appealed for urgent support to tackle the ongoing food and nutritional crisis in the Sahel region of West Africa and respond to the needs of 11.4 million people facing food insecurity.

“Crises in this region are becoming more frequent, they’re getting closer and closer together and as a result, people are finding it harder and harder to get back on their feet before the next one comes along,” Robert Piper, UN Regional Humanitarian Coordinator for the Sahel, told a news conference in New York.

The Sahel region consists of Burkina Faso, Cameroon, Chad, Mali, Mauritania, Niger, Senegal, Gambia, and Nigeria. The humanitarian community has appealed for $1.7 billion to help millions in need this year in the region, which is still reeling from the crisis that affected some 18 million people in 2012. This year’s appeal is only 36 per cent funded.

Mr. Piper noted that “a lot of things went right in 2012” – donors responded quickly, the Governments of the region recognized the problem early, the UN system mobilized, and the UN Central Emergency Response Fund (CERF) “really proved its weight in gold” in terms of being a fast disbursing mechanism.

“We really are getting better and better at responding to these kinds of large-scale humanitarian crises, certainly in the Sahel,” he stated. “But of course, the real goal has got to be to reduce the demand for this kind of humanitarian response in the first place.”

Despite better rains and harvest projections for 2013, Mr. Piper said the international community finds itself in a region that is still in crisis, with over 11 million people affected by food insecurity. The region is also dealing was a huge number of refugees and internally displaced persons (IDPs).

“We have to recognize that one good agricultural season is not going to reverse the situation in a place like the Sahel,” stated Mr. Piper.

“People are not getting enough time to climb out of these holes of vulnerability. Markets are not functioning well because of insecurity across the whole region. The population growth is generating a momentum of its own. And as these crises keep getting closer and closer together, families are really adopting more and more negative coping mechanisms with long-term consequences,” he added.

While Mali is definitely “at the heart” of today’s crisis in the Sahel, the problems in the region go way beyond one country, he noted.

In Mali, about half a million people are food insecure and more than 4.3 million people are in need of humanitarian aid after fighting broke out in January 2012 between Government forces and Tuareg rebels. The conflict uprooted thousands of people and prompted the Malian Government to request assistance from France to stop the military advance of extremist groups.

Mr. Piper noted that while Mali is having a “tremendous” spill-over effect, a country like Chad – with its refugee caseload and its own food insecurity and nutrition crisis – is requiring a huge amount of support.

He added that the region is home to some of the most vulnerable people in the world, noting that his first visit to the region after taking up his post felt like “a tour of the bottom of the human development index.” Niger ranks 186 out of 186 countries on the UN’s Human Development Index, while Chad is 184 and Mali is 182.

“These extraordinarily vulnerable people are facing natural disasters with higher and higher frequency and greater and greater intensity. And each time, they’re finding it harder to recover.”