Soudre Amado, a farmer in Burkina Faso. Photo: Irina Fuhrmann/Oxfam
This year, Soudre Amado, a small farmer in Burkin Faso, had to plant five times since the drought dried the seeds before they could grow. Photo: Irina Fuhrmann/Oxfam

Hunger calls in Africa’s Sahel region

27 January, 2012 | Conflict & Emergencies

The spectre of hunger is again stalking the people of the western Sahel, at the southern edge of the Sahara Desert. Thanks to the early-warning systems funded by Canada and other donors, we now know that a major food crisis is brewing. We know in time to head it off.

Late and irregular rainfall, followed by plagues of birds, locusts and other pests have decimated the harvests of poor farmers and made pasture scarce for herders. Cereal production in the five countries of the region is down by a quarter from last year and is well below the five-year average. In Mauritania and Chad farmers harvested barely half what they got last year. National food reserves exist, but they hold nowhere near the quantity needed to mitigate the deficit.

Even if the market were well stocked, the prices of key cereals are 10 to 40 per cent higher than usual. Most people in the Sahel buy their food, and the most vulnerable families spend up to 80 per cent of their income on it. As if failed harvests and skyrocketing prices weren’t enough, remittances from family members working in Libya and Côte d’Ivoire have evaporated due to the conflicts in those countries.

The Sahel is an ecologically fragile region prone to shocks. Even in a “normal” year, half of all children under five suffer chronic malnutrition. Rates of acute malnutrition among children are consistently above the 10 per cent threshold that for UNICEF defines an emergency. Years with no “crisis” still see 300,000 children die from malnutrition-related causes.

But the Sahel is not condemned to suffer Somalia’s fate. The region’s governments have acknowledged the depth of the coming crisis. Several have already mobilized the meagre resources they have on hand and asked for outside help. Donors are starting to engage, with Europe leading the way.

Early recognition provides us with an opportunity to avoid the mistakes of the past. Acting now could avoid a costly escalation that would put millions of people at risk of losing their livelihoods or losing their lives.

We are warned now about the impending tragedy in the Sahel. But will we act?

Mark Fried is policy coordinator at Oxfam Canada.

Read the full op-ed article on

Related links

Update (18 May 2012): 18 million people now at risk in the Sahel food crisis [infographic]

How Oxfam is responding now in West Africa

Read the report: Escaping the Hunger Cycle: Pathways to resilience in the Sahel

What a global food crisis looks like: Oxfam's food prices map


Food Crisis West Africa

I would love to be able to help these people with food, but what about contracetion....Even if we fill these poor childrens brlly's, their parents don't have work and spend most of their leasure time having sex and babies.......common sense and logic is need as well as food. Half or most of this money will not even get to these children..."WAKE UP AMERICA"!!!  Your getting shafted by your own government again

We cannot feed the world indefinately.

If they cannot afford children, then they must be taught and educated on how to manage a population of uncivilized people not to.

No food. Condoms for the parents and food for the babies

We're in this together

Hey man,  if these people don't have access to food,  how are they going to get access to condoms and birthcontrol?  And as for American people waking up,  the only ones really awoke are the ones realizing that we're in this whole world together.  We've got to remember too that climate change is effecting these regions,  that isn't their doing,  it's only the north american regions responsible for that one.  So it's our humanitarian duty to try and effectively and efficiently help these regions stabalize,  not with just money and food I realize that,  but with long term solutions provided by Oxfam,  Plan Canand and  Jesus said, give a man a fish and you feed him for a day,  teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime.  Also if the parents starve,  there'll be no one left to look after the kids,  what are you thinking?

Love what you guys are doing

Hi Oxfam,  thanks for thinking long term and doing something real  Would you guys happen to know about low cost, super light water pumps? I think getting these out to people would help your impact in the region as well, they've got an office in Kenya so I'm thinking that might make shipping closer/cheaper here's the site so you can check it out:

yes i think thats the

yes i think thats the solution cheap water pumps peter