By Xan Rice in Nairobi
A severe drought is causing increasing hunger across the Eastern Sahel in West Africa, affecting 10 million people in four countries, aid agencies warned today. In Niger, the worst-affected country, 7.1 million are hungry, with nearly half considered highly food insecure because of the loss of livestock and crops coupled with a surge in prices. In Chad, 2 million require food aid. The eastern parts of Mali and northern Cameroon have also been badly affected by the failed rains, says the UN World Food Programme, which described the situation as critical. The Sahel, a largely arid belt of land that stretches across Senegal to Sudan and separates the Sahara desert in the north from the savannah regions further south, is one of the poorest regions in the world. The WFP, which plans to assist 3.6 million people in the coming months, has described the humanitarian situation in the four affected countries as “critical”, and says the hunger season is expected to last at least until the next harvest in September.
Save the Children, which has launched an emergency appeal for Niger, says in some cases families have trekked more than 600 miles to reach the capital Niamey to find work or beg for food. Others have crossed the border in Nigeria. Similarly, desperate Chadians have sought food in Libya.
The effect of the drought has been compared to the 2005 crisis in Niger, where tens of thousands of children needed treatment for acute malnutrition. Then, president Mamadou Tandja exacerbated the emergency by denying that the extent the hunger. But he was toppled in a military coup in February this year, which has helped the humanitarian response this time.
“The new government is not in denial, so the situation may not turn out to be as serious as in 2005,” said Malek Triki, a WFP spokesman in Dakar. “The international community and the local authorities have been preparing for this.”