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Humanitarian Aid on the move #10, special issue: Sahel

Opening speech of the conference "Food crisis in the Sahelian strip"
Alice Martin-Daihirou

Key word: Point of view /

A significant proportion of the population of the Sahel is affected by chronic food insecurity and malnutrition. This phenomenon was brought to the attention of the international community by the major droughts and food crises which took place in the 1970s and 1980s, and by the climatic disruption which affected the economies and ecosystems of this region of Western and Central Africa. In 2007, 2008 and 2010, the sub-region experienced the worst floods in more than 30 years. In 2005, 2009 and 2011, drought and the food and pastoral crisis affected several countries of the sub-region. Vulnerable people are unable to rebuild what they have lost due to the rapid succession of disasters.

Production systems and the way of life in the sub-region, which are essentially agro-pastoral, remain vulnerable to climatic vagaries. The increase in extreme phenomena like droughts, floods, rising food prices, locust invasions and epidemics in recent years has compromised the efforts of governments to reach the Millennium Development Goals.

In Chad, as is the case in the other countries of the Sahelian Strip, the population remains very vulnerable to frequent shocks and is exposed to a high level of risk of crises and disasters. Agricultural and pastoral activities depend a great deal on climatic vagaries which affect productivity and the availability of water for animals.

Nationally, it is difficult for agricultural production to meet the needs of the population. Further problems concern the storage and management of harvests, the breakdown of markets, informal cross-border trade and the ineffectiveness of transfer systems for agricultural produce which limits the regularity of supplies to the areas of the Sahelian strip where there are structural shortages.

Despite the will of governments and the numerous programmes supported by donors, United Nations agencies and NGOs, the nutritional situation remains worrying. Chronic malnutrition affects more than 39% of children, and 21% in its severe form with rates above the critical threshold in many countries, especially in the Sahelian strip.

Everyone is currently worried about climate change and food and nutritional crises, particularly scientists, politicians and humanitarian and development organizations, who have been holding more and more high level meetings to find solutions to this chronic problem […]

In numerous countries, the end of one disaster often heralds the arrival of the next one because the resilience of communities has been worn down, often due to a lack of disaster preparedness. It is important to use a broad selection of tools to understand the nature and dimension of disasters.

In order to make sure that economic shocks and disasters do not lead to acute food shortages, it is fundamental to implement early warning systems and systems for analyzing vulnerability to help communities, governments and the international community to take a pre-emptive role to combat hunger as effectively and efficiently as possible, by favouring disaster prevention, preparedness and mitigation. It is imperative that early warning systems work properly and that contingency plans are up to date. It is clear that the lower productivity caused by disasters will make the already recurring food and nutritional crises in this very fragile region worse. Thus, it is necessary to adopt adaptation options which improve the resilience of agricultural systems via modern methods and technologies to cope with these crises. These include, for example:

  • Redefining agricultural calendars in terms of sowing dates and cultivation cycles to cope more effectively with variability in terms of rainfall;
  • Developing seed varieties which are adapted to water or heat stress;
  • Managing water and land, and protecting crops against climatic vagaries;
  • Irrigation using surface water and underground water;
  • Adopting responsible methods for the management of soil fertility;
  • The development and diversification of income generating activities, such as the processing of agricultural products;
  • Combating crop pests and diseases;
  • Reinforcing the monitoring of land and animals;
  • Building forage stocks and sowing pastures;
  • Improving zootechnic performance

In general, vulnerable communities are well aware of the manifestations of climatic variability and change. Over the years, they have developed survival and adaptation strategies. More and more, food and non-food assistance plays a major role in saving lives and reinforcing the resilience of vulnerable populations. However, the fundamental question remains: will these strategies be enough to cope with the effects of disasters? It is therefore essential to properly evaluate the lessons learned from previous humanitarian responses and to put them into perspective in relation to the challenges ahead. It is also important to provide tools to prepare and plan appropriate responses, and culturally, socially and economically sound and effective strategies, taking into account the relation between the humanitarian response and development. And finally, it is also necessary to combine activities aimed at short-term events with those aimed at structural phenomena.

Alice Martin-Daihirou, Interim Humanitarian Coordinator and WFP Representative

On Wednesday 21 March 2012, in N’Djamena, Groupe URD organised the conference, ‘Food crisis in the Sahelian strip: lessons from previous humanitarian responses and the challenges ahead’. This event brought together Sahel specialists and specialists in food security in pastoral and agro-pastoral regions. The sharing of experiences, enriched by exchanges with actors involved in the response to the crisis in Chad, made it possible to draw lessons directly adapted to the context.