RHC Interview: The Sahel

18 July, 2012
Regional Humanitarian Coordinator visited Mopti, Mali in April 2012. Here, he meets representatives from humanitarian organizations. Credit: UNDP/ Nicolas Meulders
Regional Humanitarian Coordinator visited Mopti, Mali in April 2012. Here, he meets representatives from humanitarian organizations. Credit: UNDP/ Nicolas Meulders
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Millions of people face food insecurity in West Africa’s Sahel region. Successive droughts combined with conflict and displacement have pushed people into crisis in nine countries: Burkina Faso, Cameroon, Chad, Gambia, Mali, Mauritania, Niger, Nigeria and Senegal. 

In Niger, the number of people affected by food insecurity more than doubled between February and April. In northern Mali, insecurity and conflict have displaced some 370,000 people. About half of those people have fled to Burkina Faso, Mauritania and Niger—countries that are already struggling to cope with the crisis. 
UN agencies and humanitarian organizations have received 42 per cent of the US$1.6 billion needed to respond to the crisis. But the funding must be sustained to help families and communities in the region absorb the shocks of future droughts, says Regional Humanitarian Coordinator David Gressly.  
Mr. Gressly, who was appointed in April 2012, talks about the importance of building people’s resilience, addressing the structural causes of the crisis, and improving agricultural productivity and access to food and nutrition.  
Q: How severe is the food and nutrition crisis in the Sahel region?
A: We believe that 18.7 million people are affected by food insecurity, and we project that up to 1.1 million children could be suffering from severe acute malnutrition this year. Severe acute malnutrition is a very serious condition with a high risk of dying, and the mortality rates range from 25 to 60 per cent depending on the conditions.  
Q: The crisis is affecting a large part of the region. What are some of the interconnected causes of this crisis?
A: Well, we are looking at nine different countries in the Sahel region. Just to put it into context, there are 120 million people in the region, which is 10 times the size of France. However, there are a lot of commonalities across this region. The Sahel borders the Sahara desert, therefore rain fluctuation is quite common and there are periods of drought. There has been a series of droughts – there was one in 2005, another in 2010 and we are again seeing the same thing this year. As a result, across the Sahel band we are seeing much lower food production and, most importantly, we are seeing increasing food prices. This means that even when food is available, it may not be accessible to too many people who just cannot afford to buy it.
The food insecurity is also being compounded by the conflict we see, particularly in Mali and northern Nigeria. The loss of control of the Government in northern Mali has provoked a large movement of refugees and internally displaced people. Over 350,000 people have been displaced: 200,000 as refugees in surrounding countries and 150,000 inside Mali itself. 
Q: What is the humanitarian community doing about this? 
A: The good news is that we started responding to the crisis late last year when the first projections of food insecurity and high rates of malnutrition were reported. Donors have been very receptive to the early warning that came out from Governments and international organizations. As a result, we were able to mobilize considerable resources. We need $1.6 billion for 2012. About half of that has already been mobilized and is now being used to provide food and nutrition in all nine countries, as well as to deal with the refugee crisis around Mali. That response is actually well underway, and if the funding continues we will be able to see through the crisis without a major catastrophe. 
Q: What are some of the concerns as these efforts are underway? 
A: There are always challenges, there are always concerns and it is going to take hard work. The food is flowing but it is subject to continued funding. We have seen some funding shortfalls in health and water, which are important because you can save someone’s life from food insecurity and malnutrition, but that person might still die of cholera or diarrhoeal disease. So there has to be a complete package and we don’t quite have that yet in terms of funding.
Q: Is there a long-term strategy?
A: For once, there is growing consensus amongst Governments in the region, donors and UN agencies that we need to find a way to break this cycle of food insecurity. We cannot invest $1.6 billion to simply respond to an acute crisis; it is important to have an investment that deals with structural causes relating to agricultural productivity, access to food and high rates of malnutrition. If this can be addressed, we can build the resilience of families and communities so that they can absorb the shocks of future droughts, and there will be a drought in the future. But when that happens in the future, and if these actions are taken now, we can avoid this huge requirement for significant funding and a massive relief effort to try to sustain people.       
Time is of the essence, and if you are going to make a difference, the earlier you react the better it is. And I think that this is perhaps representative of what we have seen generally from the humanitarian community: a recognition to act faster, to respond better and to get the job done on time.