You Should Know About What’s Happening in the Sahel and Why It’s Spiraling Out of Control

World Food Program USA
November 21, 2019
Photo: WFP/Kevin Ouma

In the strip of land just below the Sahara desert that stretches across the entire African continent, the stakes for rain and peace are high. It’s called the Sahel, and in the center of it are Burkina Faso, Mali and Niger. These three countries are facing a toxic mix of escalating armed conflict, displacement, hunger and widespread poverty – all compounded by the severe impacts of climate change.

Seasonal rains only come once a year to small plots of farmland that provide food to millions of people every year. Farmers depend on the rain to grow good harvests to feed their families, and those who raise livestock rely on it to replenish grazing land for their animals.

In 2017, erratic rainfall in the Sahel contributed to a smaller annual harvest, threatening livelihoods and leading to an early hunger season in 2018—the time of year, every year, when food runs out. But this year, meager rains aren’t the only threat.

Violent clashes between armed groups and civilians have killed scores of people, forced hundreds of thousands to flee their homes, and pushed whole communities to the brink of starvation. In Burkina Faso alone, the number of people displaced internally has increased by more than 400,000 since the start of 2019.

That’s why 2.4 million people may need emergency food assistance from WFP by the end of this month. The situation is especially bad in Mali, where 34% of infant deaths are directly related to poor nutrition.

Where Climate Change and Conflict Converge

The arid belt of the Sahel stretches from Senegal on the coast of West Africa to Djibouti on the east. Hundreds of millions of people call the region home, but for years, this area has suffered the effects of frequent drought, desertification and other symptoms of a changing climate. In recent years, armed groups like Boko Haram have exacerbated the situation, displacing people from their land.

When harvests are low and livestock are unable to survive, people often resort to short-term coping strategies with perilous long-term effects. Many sell off assets like tools and animals. They eat fewer meals or consumer inexpensive, poorer-quality food. Some migrate in search of jobs or food, while others consider joining terrorist groups that offer a monthly stipend or protection, taking advantage of people’s desperation.

While the “hunger season” has been a reality for families in this region for a long time, increasing conflict and insecurity has made the situation more complex. In northern Mali, N’fa Adama Traore and his community have been living off the land near the Niger River for nearly 40 years. But recent land disputes with neighboring communities, as well as violent attacks by armed men nearby, have forced his community to flee from their homes.

In southern Mauritania, men are migrating earlier and farther than normal, sometimes with their livestock, to find food, water and work in neighboring Mali or Senegal. Some countries have put restrictions in place to control border crossings of people and livestock, constraining pastoralists’ movements and leading to tensions between farmers and herders. This often results in a concentration of livestock along these borders, further deteriorating the quantity and quality of pastureland in the area.

The Lake Chad area of the Sahel has seen its primary water source shrink by nearly 90 percent in the past 50 years, and armed conflict has become prevalent, strangling trade flows and triggering displacement.

What will it take to save them?

The rise in conflict is devastating agriculture and rural economies, and almost one in three children is out of school in many areas. WFP is doing everything it can to provide immediate food and nutrition assistance to families across the Central Sahel, while simultaneously building community resilience by investing in small-scale farmers, planting trees, repairing irrigation canals, rolling out water management initiatives and supporting education for girls and boys through school meals.

It’s difficult, dangerous work. The rise in armed fighting is limiting WFP’s access to families in need and making it harder for humanitarian agencies to carry out their life-saving work. Meanwhile, millions of lives are on the line and the international response has been relatively quiet. Why?

“This area is of interest to hardly anyone,” says Margot van der Velden, WFP’s director of emergencies. “Until it really, really hits something financial or something political that is actually a direct impact for global players — at this point nobody is truly interested and everyone just stands by watching tragedy develop in front of our eyes.”

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