Three senior United Nations officials have issued warnings that the looming food crisis in Africa's Sahel region is at risk of becoming a full-blown humanitarian disaster unless the amount of aid designated for the region is significantly increased, and soon.
Speaking to reporters in Geneva, Antonio Guterres, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, Anthony Lake, the executive director of UNICEF, and World Health Organization director Margaret Chan outlined an increasingly dire situation, in which up to 1.5 million children are at risk of severe malnutrition and possible death, while a UN appeal for funds is following short of its target.
"We badly need to put this crisis on the map because its humanitarian dimension is becoming extremely, extremely dramatic," Guterres said.
In December, the UN announced an aid target of $724-million to address the crisis, but only about half that amount has been raised.
"Someday there will be no excuse for looking back and saying why didn't we do more quickly," said Lake. Unless donor countries provide more funds, "the result will be many children will die and many families will suffer," he said.
The Guardian recently produced the following map showing the region affected:
The U.S. announced this month that it will send $120 million, while the Canadian International Development Agency announced in February that it would commit a total of $41-million to help with relief efforts.
There have been a number of initiatives to raise awareness of crisis. Senegalese singer Baaba Maal recently released the following video with Oxfam, in the hopes of getting the message to a wider public:
The World Food Programme, which is coordinating much of the aid effort, has posted a guide to the Sahel crisis on its website in the form of a Q&A. Addressing the question of how the WFP is preparing its relief plans, the organization says, "in countries like Niger where food markets are holding up, WFP is providing hungry people with vouchers and cash that they can use to buy food at local markets. This helps the local economy and gives people a greater variety of food to choose from. WFP will also be buying much of the food it distributes from countries near to the Sahel, to cut down on the amount of time it takes to get to the people who need it."
UNICEF has arranged a social media campaign, #SahelNOW, which is aimed at boosting awareness of the problem, and particularly the number of children at risk.
If you want to get involved, check out the UNICEF website - they've got "Four steps to help sound the alarm". You can embed the informational video (seen below), share the image they've created, tell your friends and family some facts about the crisis, or reshare posts from UNICEF on Facebook or Twitter.
WFP, UN Seek Help To Prevent A New Famine, This Time In West Africa
February 15, 2012 Last summer, a food crisis in the Horn of Africa seemed to catch the world by surprise, as the United Nations declared famine for the first time in almost 30 years and international agencies struggled to cope with a humanitarian disaster. To make matters worse, the emergency came in the midst of ongoing conflict between warring factions in Somalia. The crisis is estimated to have killed between 50,000 and 100,000 people in the Horn, with millions of people still in need of assistance.
The situation remains dire, but the emergency in East Africa was declared officially over last month, thanks seasonal rains and a better harvest. A new crisis, however, is emerging: Today a meeting of the World Food Programme in Rome heard that immediate action is needed in order to prevent another famine, this time in West Africa.
The Sahel is a region on the southern edge of the Saharan desert, where more than 10 million people in parts of Niger, Mauritania, Mali, Chad, Senegal, Gambia, Burkina Faso and Nigeria are enduring drastic food shortages. Poor rains have led to terrible harvests, and there are already reports of critical levels of malnutrition affecting the area, particularly among children.
Speakers at today's WFP meeting, including executive director Josette Sheeran and the UN under-secretary general for humanitarian affairs Valerie Amos, underlined the need for a solution that both addressed the immediate crisis and its underlying causes, emphasizing that lessons learned from the Somalia would help ensure an improved response.
The UN has estimated that $725-million is needed to deal with the food shortage in the Sahel, of which 20% has been raised.
Compounding the difficulties being faced is an increasingly violent conflict in Mali between the government and Tuareg tribesmen. The rebels, some of whom served as mercenary fighters defending the Gaddhafi regime in Libya, have stepped up an offensive against the government in order to secure greater independence. The Malian army has accused the rebels of using "Al-Qaeda-style" terror attacks after a particularly vicious assault on the northern Malian town of Aguelhok, in which 82 people were killed.
These claims have been denied by the rebels as part of a campaign of misinformation by the government in Bamako. Nevertheless, thousands of Malians in the north have left their homes, hoping to flee the violence by crossing into border areas of Mauritania, Niger and Burkina Faso. Much like the Horn of Africa crisis last year, this conflict-fuelled refugee crisis could severely restrict the ability of aid agencies to cope with the simultaneous food crisis in the region.
According to speakers at today's meeting, it is of the essence for the international community to act now before the situation in the Sahel gets out of control. "We have a short time to act. We have two to three months, no more than that," said José Graziano da Silva of the Food and Agriculture Organization.
A statement from the WFP made clear that a response to the food crisis will have to keep longer term goals in mind: "This is the third drought to hit the Sahel in less than a decade... many families have not yet fully recovered from the last drought in 2010 and have even less to fall back on now than they did then," the agency said.
At today's meeting, the WFP's Sheeran emphasized the need for immediate action as well. "The window of opportunity to save millions from malnutrition in the Sahel is rapidly closing," she said.
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