Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

The suffering Sahel

City-based agency rushing to feed drought-stricken region in Africa

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Niamey, Niger -- For the second time in as many years, a food-security crisis is looming over Africa, this time over a broad and rain-starved swath of the continent known as the Sahel.

Food shortages in the Horn of Africa threatened the lives of millions in 2011. Local and international relief efforts prevented famine conditions from arising in Kenya and Ethiopia, but mass deaths occurred in Somalia due to the failed state's inability to mount an effective response to food shortages.

The United Nations fears a similar crisis is taking shape this year in the Sahel, a semi-arid strip of Africa that stretches from the Atlantic Ocean to the Red Sea, on the southern fringe of the Sahara Desert.

Drought and crop failures threaten the food security of millions in Mauritania, Senegal, Cameroon, Mali, Burkina Faso, Niger, Nigeria and Chad, the nations that collectively make up the West African portion of the Sahel. Estimates of the number of people at risk of hunger or malnutrition vary from six million to 15 million.

Despite the uncertainty, the UN and some of the world's largest aid groups are sufficiently concerned to appeal for donations to avert the crisis, which could be compounded by regional conflicts that stymie food-distribution efforts as well as "famine fatigue" among potential donors.

"The challenge we have in a situation like the Sahel is we're projecting a disaster. We're trying to get ahead of the curve," said Jim Cornelius, executive director of the Winnipeg-based Canadian Foodgrains Bank, an umbrella organization for 15 Christian charities.

"In this particular situation, it's much harder to raise money when it looks like it's going to be bad, versus when it is bad. But when you wait until it's bad, it's too late."

Cornelius's fear is borne out by fundraising statistics released late last month by the UN, which announced it had only collected half of the $725 million it hoped to raise to avert crisis conditions in the Sahel. The same week, four of the world's largest aid groups -- World Vision, Oxfam, Save The Children and Action Against Hunger -- declared they had only raised one-fifth of the $250 million they hoped to collect.

Crop failures in 2011, dwindling food supplies on the ground this year and satellite-image observations of the region allowed disaster-relief organizations to begin their preparations early. Based on previous experiences, the agencies believe it's easier and cheaper to distribute food to people when they're still in their homes and relatively healthy rather than when they're on the move or living in camps and are in desperate need of sustenance.

"The challenge for this is if you're successful, then everyone will say, 'Well, there wasn't a food crisis' and they would be right," Cornelius said. "It's a lot harder to raise money for prophylactic activities than for treatment."

Food shortages are hardly new to the Sahel, one of the world's poorest regions, which has experienced rapid population growth, political instability, deforestation and at least two severe droughts over the past 30 years. The region has experienced not just severe weather events, but climate change on a scale unseen elsewhere in the world, according to an overwhelming consensus of environmental scientists.

From 1969 to 2009, average temperatures in the central Sahel -- Mali, Niger, Chad and Sudan -- increased 1 C, the U.S. Geological Survey reported late in 2011. The effect is believed to be the result of a warming Indian Ocean, which also appears to be drying out large swaths of Africa.

In the 1970s, the western Sahel experienced what is locally known as "the dessication," a marked drop in rainfall that turned sandy soils into cracked pavement and reduced the growing season, devastating subsistence agriculture in a region where most people survive on food they grow themselves.

Unlike in North America, where many farmers heavily irrigate their crops, agriculture in the Sahel depends almost entirely on rain. When the rain doesn't fall, reduced yields of staple crops such as sorghum, millet and cowpeas cause food prices to rise beyond the reach of the very same subsistence farmers. Export crops such as cotton and groundnuts also fail, depriving Sahelian nations of the ability to purchase food.

The economies of most Sahelian states depend on a single, uncontrollable commodity: rain.

"Very little rain means very little growth, and vice-versa," University of Nebraska and Water For Food Institute researcher Marc Andreini told a sustainability conference in Winnipeg in early May. While many mid-continental regions of the world -- including the flood- and drought-prone Canadian Prairies -- suffer from weather extremes, impoverished African nations with little irrigation infrastructure suffer the most from variations in precipitation, he said.

During the 1980s, rainfall returned to average levels in many parts of the Sahel. But increasing heat led to more of what hydrologists call "evapotranspiration," the combined loss of moisture from evaporation off the land and transpiration from trees, grasses and other plants.

As a result, vegetative cover in the region also began migrating south and the Sahara advanced into the Sahel. One in six trees in the Sahel died during the second half of the 20th century alone and one in five species of trees disappeared entirely from the region, according to Patrick Gonzalez of the U.S. National Park Service, whose team of researchers published its findings in late 2011. Farmers in the Sahel rely on trees to shade their crops during the dry season, which prevent soil from blowing away in the wind. They also use the wood for fuel and raw materials, he said.

What was once one of the world's largest lakes -- Lake Chad, at the border of Chad, Niger and Nigeria -- has shrunk to a fraction of its size, depriving both farmers and fishers of food.

Adding to this litany of challenges this year are conflicts that force people off their land and confound food-distribution efforts, not to mention educational programs aimed at improving agricultural practices in the long term. The most pessimistic reports point to a growing breakdown of the social cohesion that once united diverse ethnic and religious groups across the Sahel.

The UN estimates more than 320,000 refugees have fled this year from Mali, which has struggled to recover from both a recent coup in the capital and ongoing Tuareg and al Qaida-affiliated insurgencies in remote desert areas. Tensions between Christians and Muslims are threatening to divide northern Nigeria, fighting has reignited in Sudan and even relatively peaceful nations such as Niger have reported incursions by arms dealers from a free but relatively anarchic Libya.

All of these factors have had a major effect on a region where ordinary people struggle to find food during normal years.

"It's an area that sits on the margins," Cornelius said of the Sahel. "It doesn't take much to push it over the edge."


The Canadian Foodgrains Bank has, in part, sponsored Kives's trip.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition May 5, 2012 A6


Updated on Saturday, May 5, 2012 at 11:36 AM CDT: adds colour photo, adds fact box

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