RHC Interview: The Sahel

24 August, 2012
April 2012, Mopti, Mali: A displaced woman from the North of Mali waits at a temporary shelter near Mopti's main bus station. Credit: UNDP/ Nicolas Meulders
April 2012, Mopti, Mali: A displaced woman from the North of Mali waits at a temporary shelter near Mopti's main bus station. Credit: UNDP/ Nicolas Meulders

David Gressly is Regional Humanitarian Coordinator for the relief effort in nine countries of the Sahel region of West Africa: Burkina Faso, Cameroon, Chad, Mali, Mauritania, Niger, Nigeria, Senegal and the Gambia. An estimated 18.7 million people in the region are suffering the effects of a food and nutrition crisis.  

Insecurity in northern Mali and Nigeria are further pushing families to the edge of survival and exacerbating the crisis in neighbouring countries. Additional funding and improved access to the worst-affected communities are critical at this stage to avert a large scale tragedy, says Mr Gressly.
 
Q: You have just returned from a mission to Mali and Nigeria. What is your assessment of the humanitarian situation there?
 
The situation remains complex in Mali with insecurity in the north restraining humanitarian access to vulnerable people and prompting additional movements in and outside the country. To date, some 400, 000 have been displaced, half of them being mainly in Mauritania, Niger and Burkina Faso. It makes it difficult for humanitarian actors to have a tangible assessment of the needs. However we know that relief items are reaching people through the help of local NGOs and communities. But when we speak about Mali, we should also keep in mind that 80 per cent of the needs are in the south of the country. With 4.6 million people affected by the food security crisis, and 175,000 children at risk of severe acute malnutrition, we must scale up our efforts. For this to happen, donors need to maintain their support to this year’s humanitarian appeal which is only 45 per cent funded so far.
 
In the northern-eastern states of Nigeria, violence has also limited the presence of humanitarian actors. Tracking the displaced has proven to be a difficult task as some of them seek refuge with families or host families and others try to find shelter in major towns. In the north of Nigeria, Global Acute Malnutrition ranges from 6.4 to 13.1 per cent in the eight Sahel states of the country.  The nutritional response is making progress with 90,000 children having received treatment from January to May. But with a 37 per cent funding gap, financial resources at our disposal will not be sufficient to maintain nutritional activities to meet emergency needs until the end of the year.
 
Q: To what extent has the humanitarian response under way been able to prevent a further deterioration of the crisis? 
 
Overall, the massive humanitarian response has been saving lives every day throughout the region. In June alone, the World Food Programme provided food and nutrition assistance to close to 6 million people. Some half a million children suffering from severe acute malnutrition have been treated since the beginning or the year out of an estimated caseload of 1 million at risk. And 3.8 million people, including farmers, herders and women, were given seed fertilizers, farming tools, animal feeds and a provision of small livestock.
  
This crisis is acute but we have the potential to contain it and prevent a humanitarian disaster from happening if we keep the momentum and get the resources we need. This implies continuing to build our response, to boost the capacity of humanitarian actors on the ground, and to make additional funding available. Out of the US$1.6 billion required for the Sahel Region, 53 per cent has been financed to date. 
 
Q: What is your focus for the months to come?  
 
The lean season is underway which means that until the next harvest in September, food assistance will be the main means of survival for many vulnerable families.  At the same time, seasonal rains are creating additional difficulties and threats such as higher risk of epidemics, notably cholera, as well as possible desert locust infestation throughout the sub-region with the potential of affecting 50 million people.
 
Against this backdrop, I will keep looking at opportunities to enhance partnerships with humanitarian partners, regional organizations, development and political actors as well as donors for a more effective response to the multiple crises affecting the Sahel region.
I will also push the resilience agenda forward, notably during the high-level event on the Sahel that will take place on 26 September on the margins of the General Assembly in New York. The meeting will look at all key challenges facing the region in an integrated manner – on the security, political, human rights, development and humanitarian sides. 
 
We all agree that recurrent cycle of hunger and malnutrition are unacceptable and that we need to create a better articulation between humanitarian and development actions that addresses structural factors at the root of these vulnerabilities.