Sahel Crisis: Where Are We Now? (Interview)

The Sahel region of West Africa has been struggling with a severe food crisis for several months now and, with its partners, WFP has rolled out emergency assistance projects in eight different countries. At present we are working to assist some 10 million people affected by drought and conflict. 

DAKAR -- One of the key architects of WFP’s response in the Sahel is Thomas Yanga, WFP’s regional director for West Africa. While explaining that the situation across the region is still critical, he says early action has helped avoid an even worse scenario.  He also notes the importance of the resilience-building work which has been built into WFP’s response.

1.    In early 2012 aid groups such as WFP warned that the situation in the Sahel would deteriorate rapidly unless action was taken quickly. Has action been taken?
We started the preparation and early action in November in Niger and I would say that, yes, it has yielded some positive results. The situation is still critical but without the numerous interventions that we have carried out, in line with the plans designed by Government and supported by NGO partners, the situation would have been worse.
But our efforts need to continue and we count on the support of our donors to be able to move through this lean season which is the hardest period for communities in the Sahel.

2.    What’s the hunger situation across the Sahel like right now?

We are in the middle of the ‘lean season’, which normally goes from June to September.  But for a large proportion of the population the lean season actually started much earlier this year. This is especially true for the agro-pastoralists [who live from a mixture of agriculture and livestock herding and are particularly vulnerable to drought -ed].
As regards the situation right now, we have a worrying locust situation in Northern Mali and Niger. They are now breeding and if measures are not taken to stop that, it could seriously impact this year’s food production. So we are making plans to cope with such a situation.
The security situation in Northern Mali is also a compounding factor. [The conflict] could produce more refugees. We already have 180,000 refugees in three neighbouring countries and more than 150,000 internally displaced persons inside Mali.  We don’t expect the situation to be resolved very soon and we are in fact worried that there might be an escalation in the coming weeks or months.

Interactive Map

To get a quick view of the situation in each of the eight Sahel countries where WFP is working, check out our interactive map.

For more information, you can also visit our Sahel Crisis page.

3.    Where are the worst pockets of hunger and why?
According to a recent analysis, it is clear that there will be extreme situations in some parts of Mali, Mauritania and Chad. There are also worries especially about pockets in Northern Mali, which is under the control of rebel groups. I would also add that high food prices  are a compounding factor and prices are not coming down yet.  For example, in June prices on some markets in Northern Mali were between 50% to 90%  higher than the average of the last five years. In Burkina Faso they were between 40% and 80% higher and in Niger prices were up by somewhere between 20% and 40%.

4.    When is the next harvest and how much relief will it bring?

The next harvest is normally planned for August and we hope that by that time the population will have planted their crops. This is not the case everywhere. We have some situations which are very worrying and inputs such as seeds and fertilizers must be made available to farmers.
Unfortunately, food production relies heavily on rainfall and we hope that rainfall will be good so that all the people who have managed to plant crops will have some relief.
However, we are planning for a scenario in which, even if there is a good harvest, there will still be some groups of people who will need assistance. For example, we will need to continue our support to children, mothers with babies and pregnant women, in order to prevent them from falling into malnutrition.

5.  What has been done to build resilience in the long term?

One of the major differences in this year’s response has been the inclusion of resilience-building work within relief activities. WFP has taken a phased approach. Early on we implemented resilience-building activities, followed by emergency relief programmes and then by some other mitigation work.
I have had a chance myself, through my visits to Chad and Niger, to see very effective resilience-building activities done with 'cash-for-work' or 'food-for-work' programmes. (Click to see an example in Niger). These have helped communities to cope with the situation and prevented them from migrating, taking their children out of school and generally seeing their nutritional intake deteriorate.
We will develop our resilience-building activities – this is part of our response strategy. We will put more emphasis on those activities in October in order to prepare vulnerable communities to face the next crisis.