Located in the arid Sahel region of West Africa, Mauritania is among the world’s least developed food-deficit countries, ranked 159 out of 187 countries on the 2011 UNDP Human Development Index. With 42 percent of the population living below the poverty line, Mauritania is one of the poorest countries in the world, characterized by vast tracts of desert and scarce water sources. Only 0.5 percent of the land in Mauritania can be used for agriculture and only 53 percent of the population has access to drinking water. The poorest people live in rural areas; 59 percent of the people in the agro-pastoral east and south live below the national poverty line. Most of the country is inhabited by nomadic populations that do not have easy access to basic necessities and sanitation facilities.
The effects of climate change such as coastal erosion, desertification, silting and the rising sea level accentuate the already vulnerable food security situation in the country. Repeated cycles of drought and degradation of natural resources have profoundly reduced the structural capacity of the population’s productivity, negatively affecting farmers and agro-pastoralists. Presently, Mauritania is able to produce only 30 percent of its food consumption needs. Water resources, both the quality and quantity, are deteriorating due to declining rainfall and increased evaporation, thus farmland is prone to desertification. The low agricultural output and increased urbanization has led to a high dependency on imports and made the country more vulnerable to market volatility.
Adding to the country’s general vulnerability, Mauritania, along with the other countries in the Sahel, has been seriously affected this year by a food security crisis due to large deficits (unevenly distributed in time and space) of the 2011 rainy season. Rain deficits have led to significant drops in agricultural production and the availability of grazing areas and water sources for animals. Consequently the income and purchasing power of these affected households has extremely decreased. This situation has put at risk the livelihoods of the large proportion of Mauritania’s population that depends on subsistence agriculture and pastoralist activities. In January 2012, it was estimated that the current food crisis affects approximately 700,000 people located mainly in the central and southern regions of Hodh El Chargui, Guidhimaka, Gorgol, Brakna and Assaba. A food security survey conducted by the Food Security Commission (CSA) and WFP in December 2011, found almost one quarter of rural households (24.6%) to be food insecure (12.9% severe, 11.7% moderate). This rate is almost three times that observed in December 2010 (8.7%). Urban rates increased from 11.1% in December 2010 to 24.6% in December 2011, which is also higher than the five year average during the lean season, and 3% higher than the July 2011 rate (21%). These figures indicate an alarming situation and lack of break from the lean season, which is typically from April to September. Since the aforementioned analyses, the situation has continued to deteriorate and it is estimated that at least 800,000 persons are food insecure.
Additionally, the situation has been exacerbated by a prolonged increase in food and fuel prices. Before the current crisis, food prices were already elevated in Mauritania, a country which imports 70% of its food consumption needs. The prolonged increase has touched both rural and urban populations’ access to market purchases, decreasing their purchasing power.
The situation has worsened following armed clashes and recent waves of violence in Mali, which have forced tens of thousands of Malians to flee their homes and seek refuge in neighboring countries. Between 25 January 2012 and 10 June 2012, over 67,000 Malians fled to Mauritania, where they have settled in the M’bera camp located in the southeast of the country. The number of refugees crossing into Mauritania continues to increase, currently at an average rate of 600 people per day. WFP and UNHCR have forecasted the arrival of at least 70,000 refugees in the coming months. Furthermore, the zone where the Malians have taken refuge (Hodh El Chargui) is known to have very minimal humanitarian activities (due to security concerns and difficult access) and is the most food insecure region in the country (37 percent). The arrival of refugees has put additional pressure on the capacity of the government and local communities to respond to their immediate needs in the short term, and in the mid to long term will adversely affect the already fragile situation of host communities in the area.