Pastoral Populations Face Food, Fodder Shortages Across the Sahel

With little rainfall and widespread losses of food and fodder, 2.6 million children are at risk of deadly hunger in Africa’s Sahel.
Children are fed at an ACF clinic. Credit: ACF-Mauritania, F. Lenoir
Children are fed at an ACF clinic. Credit: ACF-Mauritania, F. Lenoir

A major food crisis looms over the Sahel, a zone that extends across the African continent, separating Sahara and savanna. Some 2.6 million children are at risk of deadly malnutrition as pastoralist populations, largely dependent on biomass-rich pastures for grazing livestock, face widespread shortages of food and fodder. With a lack of rainfall and the early arrival of this year’s “hunger gap”—the period of seasonal scarcity between harvests—substantial biomass losses have been documented across the region, imposing food shortages on human and animal populations alike across Africa’s Sahel.

Struggling Pastoralist & Farming Families

The number of families facing food insecurity has increased dramatically—tripling in the past year in Mauritania alone—with nomadic herders and subsistence farmers particularly affected. For crop farmers, the “hunger gap” typically occurs between June and September. But for livestock herders, a segment that comprises some 20% of the Sahel’s population, it comes earlier, in April and June. Families typically resort to coping methods to get through the season, such as reducing daily meals or migrating to areas of better pasture.

“The deficit of pasture this year has meant that livestock farmers have had to move south earlier than usual, concentrating along the banks of the Senegal and Niger rivers, where conflict is increasing in competition for scarce pasture and the increasing threat of resources being exhausted.”

—Frederic Ham, Disaster Risk Management and GIS Senior Adviser, ACF-Spain

Action Against Hunger’s teams are responding by helping livestock herders and their families through a range of food security programs, including emergency distributions of cattle feed, the provision of animal health services, and cash-transfer programs designed to help farming families weather the current crisis and prepare future harvests.

“The lack of rains this year has caused overgrazing of land and this has forced many livestock farming families to sell their animals prematurely—before they are so weak they die—to be able to buy food at very high prices in the markets. This has caused an imbalance between supply and demand of animals in the markets: there are too many to sell and so cattle prices have plummeted, reducing the purchasing power of livestock farmers. A year ago families could obtain, for example, 100 kilos of millet for the price of a goat, but the value has now decreased by 40%.”

—Julien Jacob, Food Security Advisor, ACF-Spain

Conflict in Mali: A New Threat

Compounding the region’s growing food crisis, fighting has erupted in northern Mali between Tuareg rebels and government forces, causing tens of thousands of people to flee to southern Mali or into neighboring Niger and Mauritania to escape this growing conflict.

“These [population] movements, along with the obstacles they pose to the access of humanitarian aid, will make the situation even worse for the most vulnerable families,” according to Rafael de Prado, Action Against Hunger’s Desk Officer for the Sahel.

With lifesaving programs in place across the Sahel—in Niger, Mali, Mauritania, Burkina Faso, Chad and Senegal—Action Against Hunger’s teams are already assisting thousands of vulnerable families through emergency distributions of food rations, and longer-term activities to improve community access to food and income, such as cash-for-work programs that provide income in exchange for work on projects that will enhance community productivity in the long run.

Tell Us What You Think

Can emergency response programs also support long-term development? What early warning indicators besides biomass loss should trigger the need for humanitarian assistance?