A Snapshot of Life in the African Sahel

World Food Program USA
August 10, 2018
Photo: WFP/Vigno Hounkanli

In a strip of land just below the Sahara desert that stretches across the African continent, the stakes for rain and peace are high.

Rains only come once a year to small plots of farmland that provide sustenance to millions of people every year. Farmers depend on good harvests to thrive and pastoralist communities rely on water for grazing land for their livestock.

But in 2017, erratic rainfall in the Sahel contributed to a smaller annual harvest, threatening livelihoods and leading to an early hunger season this year—the time of year, every year, when food runs out.

That’s why between 5 and 9 million people may need emergency food assistance from the World Food Programme (WFP) through September of 2018 as farmers await their next harvest. High malnutrition rates are expected to worsen if early action isn’t taken, with between 1.6 and 3.5 million children under the age of five in need of nutritional support.

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 negative coping strategies. Many sell off assets, eat less, 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 Seyenne Wouro Molo, a pastoralist community 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, economic and pastoral migration in the area. In 2017, the Lake Chad Basin humanitarian emergency became one of the most acute food crises in Africa, prompting a U.N. Security Council delegation to travel to the region and inspired calls for increased long-term assistance.

Stopping a Crisis Before It Starts

WFP has been working with many of these local populations for decades, providing food assistance and leading programs that will help communities become more resilient to these kinds of shocks. And in 2018, the humanitarian agency is focusing most closely on six countries in West Africa where scarce rainfall is having the greatest effect: Burkina Faso, Chad, Mali, Mauritania, Niger and Senegal.

In conjunction with the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) and UNICEF, WFP has developed an early action plan to address the immediate needs of the most vulnerable. These agencies are working to strengthen local livelihoods by habilitating water access points for human and animal use, distributing animal feed, providing vaccinations, and addressing issues such as cross-border conflict through dialogue and peacebuilding efforts.

In Niger, Food Assistance for Assets programs have already helped communities improve their resilience to climate shocks in recent years. One farmer and mother of nine, Oumou Mounkaila, was able to receive food for herself and her family while helping create dams and rehabilitate land for agricultural production, which was further complemented by training and technical advice.

Through 2018, WFP and other agencies will scale-up this kind of work in the Sahel to ensure many more people have improved access to productive land and can provide for their families during the extended lean season. In addition to these activities, WFP is also working with the national governments to scale up resilience efforts to create jobs for young people and invest in health, nutrition and education for a more sustainable future.

Just last year, an early response from the international community helped stave off famine in countries such as Somalia, Nigeria and Yemen.

In the Sahel, early action can again make all the difference.