In the Sahel – the semi-arid region of West Africa that borders the Sahara Desert in the north and tropical savannas in the south – the number of people at risk of food insecurity has tripled in just two years, bringing the figure to more than 29 million. Families are bracing themselves as they enter what’s known as the lean season, or the period after stored food has run out and before the next harvest begins. An estimated 811,000 people face emergency levels of hunger and require urgent assistance, a nearly eightfold increase since 2019.
Action Against Hunger urges the global community to rapidly deploy the necessary resources for an urgent and effective response to save lives and protect the livelihoods of the most vulnerable people.
COVID-19 and insecurity compromise health and nutrition services
"Compared to previous food shortages, this year is different and much more serious,” warns Mamadou Diop, Action Against Hunger’s regional representative in West Africa. “Today, the people who have reached this lean season are already very weakened physically and mentally, because they did not get necessary [routine healthcare services] due to the pandemic.”
Indeed, restrictions related to the pandemic, as well as the fear and stigma around the spread of COVID-19 and the COVID-19 vaccine, have limited people’s access to health centers. These issues have impacted nutrition programs in a variety of ways, including by interrupting supply chains for nutrition treatment and supplemental products and limiting nutrition education sessions, screenings, and support groups.
"At times, the response to COVID-19 has come at the expense of other necessary health coverage campaigns to prevent illnesses such as malaria and measles. In addition, people's fears and beliefs have impacted traditional vaccination campaigns like polio," explains Diop.
The impact of the COVID-19 pandemic is compounded by increased violence and insecurity, which has brought the current number of internally displaced persons and refugees in the region to 5.3 million.
Violence is causing immense challenges of access. Communities cannot safely access basic services including healthcare, education, water, food, and sanitation infrastructure while, at the same time, humanitarian actors cannot always safely reach vulnerable communities to provide emergency assistance.
As the hunger season begins, livelihoods collapse
While health and other essential services are compromised, food insecurity continues to grow. "How can families prepare for the lean season when the prior months have been marked by constant increases in food prices?" says Paloma Martín de Miguel, Action Against Hunger’s regional director for the Sahel. Inflation in the region is now estimated at more than 10% compared to the average of the last five years.
The pandemic has led to an alarming increase in food insecurity linked to a variety of factors, including market closures, declines in agricultural production, disrupted economic activities, reduced or lost employment opportunities, and severe disruptions in supply chains.
As Martín de Miguel points out: "Analyses show that more than half of households in the Sahel have difficulty accessing or cannot access affordable nutritious food." This challenge points to the need for more sustainable and hazard-resilient food systems, in particular through locally-led environmentally sustainable agriculture practices (known as agroecology), which can help ensure availability of nutritious, diverse, healthy foods while preserving biodiversity.
More funding needed to respond to hunger crisis
With the onset of the hunger season, the Sahel faces an emergency that endangers the lives of the most vulnerable people, especially women, children under five years old, and the elderly. Without urgent action and assistance, the more than 13 million people already suffering from severe food insecurity will be driven further into crisis. More people will go to bed hungry, and more than 1.6 million severely malnourished children will go untreated. Many of them could die or suffer irreversible, lifelong mental and physical consequences.
Year after year, Action Against Hunger warns of the dramatic consequences of the hunger season in the Sahel. Hunger in the Sahel is not inevitable, and the drivers of food insecurity in the Sahel, including longer and more severe droughts due to climate change, conflict, and COVID-19, cannot be ignored. In addition to emergency responses, greater efforts are needed to invest heavily in building resilience. Ensuring funding for essential services and access to these services for the most vulnerable people is crucial to ensuring long-term food and nutrition security in the region.