Sahel: A Familiar Tale of Drought, Hunger, and Famine

Photo from Guardian Courtesy of UNICEF

Infographic courtesy of Guardian

VIDEO: Guardian on Sahel

Last year, the Horn of Africa suffered from drought and famine.  Now, there’s news again that famine and drought are hitting the African continent, this time in the Sahel region.  Ten million are facing food insecurity, according to news reports.  UNICEF estimates that 1 million children will be at risk of acute malnourishment in 2012.  Eight countries are facing the brunt of this: Burkina Faso, Chad, Mali, Mauritania, Niger, Cameroon, and Senegal.  An infographic by UNICEF lays out the basics, highlighting all the causes that are contributing to this food crisis. #

In the Washington Post, the UN’s High Commissioner for Refugees, Antonio Guterres, said, “the situation in the 3,400-mile (5500-kilometer) zone that stretches from the Atlantic to the Red Sea is suffering from lack of attention because of the conflict in Syria.”

“We badly need to put this crisis on the map because its humanitarian dimension is becoming extremely, extremely dramatic,” he told reporters in Geneva.

Media attention to the Sahel crisis has been widespread, with news sources covering the basics, but the problem is that they’re not delving into the root causes, which are linked to environmental damage, weak agricultural support, and political turmoil.

The situation is bad.  But what are the solutions?  Is it simply providing more aid?  In the short term, yes.  But in the long term?

Doctors without Borders (MSF) writes that drought and hunger have become regular phenomena with the harvest cycles in the region.   Something more sustainable must be started:

“Many of the aid organizations working in the region have agreed they must start to transition from emergency response efforts towards structural measures that can assist the longer-term mission to fight illness. MSF, for its part, is already implementing strategies that can help combat the recurring malnutrition crisis in the Sahel over time, not just in the immediate moment.”

“No one has the solution, but we now know that treating children by giving mothers responsibility for their care and encouraging prevention by using specialized milk-based products offer extremely encouraging results,” Stéphane Doyon, manager of MSF’s malnutrition campaign, says. “Our objective is to help identify the most simple, economical approaches possible so that all children have access to them, just like regular vaccinations or access to health care, which have already been recognized as being effective in reducing child mortality.”

The Guardian reports that traditional medicine can sometimes exacerbate the situation, providing remedies that only make conditions worse.   To combat that, educating mothers on infant care is essential.

“Poor nutritional care among mothers also plays a role. Many women do not give their children breast milk in the first few days as they believe it to be bad for the child; if a woman falls pregnant, she will stop breastfeeding almost immediately. And when the babies become sick, dangerous traditional medical practices are often used.”

“‘If a baby is suffering from diarrhoea, the traditional doctors will sometimes burn the child’s anus,’ says Achta Alli of Beli, a female education NGO. ‘If they are coughing too much they will burn the child’s chest and, if they’re vomiting continuously, they cut the back of the throat or pull out the baby teeth. A lot of women just don’t know any better. It takes us many, many days to sit with them and convince them that what they’re doing is not good for the child.'”

Earlier, on Dowser, we profiled Steve Collins who runs a social enterprise, Valid Nutrition, which invests in local agriculture by utilizing local crops for the production of RUTF (Ready to Use Therapeutic Foods).  Another profile included Backpack Farmers, which emphasizes an agricultural education program that enhances productivity and low-cost solutions for local farmers.  These are examples of the solutions that may help on the agricultural front and prevent shortages in food supply.

The other side of the coin is the environmental changes confronting these people.  A report shares the story of one woman, Miriam Cissoko, who runs the women’s section of the Association of Professional Peasant Farmers, in Kayes, Mali where the rising heat each year is becoming a familiar trend, and devastating the local populace.

“She says, ‘It rained for only month of the usual three (in 2011) and that has meant drought and everything that comes with it.’ Kayes has been described as the second hottest place in Africa after Djibouti. ‘I grew up here and I remember an abundance of corn. We didn’t have droughts like we get now,’ Cissoko told IRIN. ‘In the hottest months, the temperature normally goes to 42 or 43 degrees Celsius, but last year it was 47 or 48 at times, in the shade. The desert is advancing and the climatic changes are here for everyone to see. It has all come progressively. We need proper cereal banks in villages; we need irrigation systems that protect agriculture; we need a credit system that can work, where people can afford the interest rates.'”

So, the big question is, even if the international community responds to the requests of the UN for immediate relief, what do we do to change these trends in the long term?

Weekend Reads:

  • The National Geographic reports on how growing food demands are straining water and energy resources.
  • Last week was the Oxford Skoll Forum, which brings together social entrepreneurs with policymakers, corporates, and international organizations.  Here is a recap of the lessons learned, courtesy of Stanford Social Innovation Review.
  • Google’s Think Quarterly looks at how data can play a critical role in investing in emerging markets.   It argues that, “socially responsible investments won’t just lead to private gain –  they have the potential to shape the world.”

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