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The Sahel: One region, many crises

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Picture shows mothers and their malnourished children at an intensive nutritional rehabilitation center (CRENI) in Tanout, southern Niger  (AFP File Photo, Sia Kambou)

Picture shows mothers and their malnourished children at an intensive nutritional rehabilitation center (CRENI) in Tanout, southern Niger
(AFP File Photo, Sia Kambou)

By André-Michel Essoungou

Africa’s Sahel region faces many complex and interconnected challenges. Here are some of the major ones, and how the United Nations is assisting the region in finding solutions.

 

The food crisis

When the Sahel is in the news, it is often because millions of people are at risk of going hungry. A humanitarian crisis usually unfolds on the back of a food crisis. In 2012, the lives of up to 18 million people were put at risk following a major food crisis in the region. This year, more than 11 million are facing the same plight, while 1.4 million children are threatened with severe malnutrition. Even in normal years, millions are in a permanent state of food insecurity. Over the past five decades, persistent droughts have contributed to famine episodes. There is now a need to break the cycle of recurrent food crises in the region, many humanitarian actors say.

 

How is the UN assisting?

Throughout this year’s lean season – the period between harvests from May to September – the World Food Programme gave food to between 5 and 6 million people each month through its nutrition and food security programme. In 2012, the Food and Agriculture Organisation helped more than 5.2 million people through support to off-season food and crop production, soil and water conservation and rehabilitation projects, and desert locust control and monitoring. With its partners, the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs is also mobilising resources and assisting communities in need.

 

The environmental crisis

Historically the Sahel has been characterised by strong climatic variations and irregular rainfalls, which pose two of the biggest obstacles to food security and poverty reduction in the region, according to the UN Environmental Programme. Things have gotten worse in recent decades, experts say. Between 1970 and 1993, the region recorded 20 years of severe drought. The frequency and severity of flooding has also increased. The Food and Agriculture Organisation reports that over 80% of the region’s land is degraded. By 2050, writes Malcolm Potts of the University of California–Berkeley, with greenhouse emissions rising, temperatures will be warmer by 3 to 5 degrees Celsius and extreme weather events will have become more common.

Various factors account for the Sahel’s environmental crisis. “Over the last half century,” the UN Environmental Programme notes, “the combined effects of population growth, land degradation (deforestation, continuous cropping and overgrazing), reduced and erratic rainfall, lack of coherent environmental policies and misplaced development priorities, have contributed to transform a large proportion of the Sahel into barren land, resulting in the deterioration of the soil and water resources.”

The armed conflict in the Sahel region is a main hindrance to its development (AFP File photo)

The armed conflict in the Sahel region is a main hindrance to its development
(AFP File photo)

How is the UN assisting?

 

Among other recommendations, UN officials have urged regional cooperation to defuse tensions between countries of the region, and thereby reduce the risk of increased conflict and environmentally induced migration. Achim Steiner, executive director of the UN Environmental Programme, has pointed to “the urgent need for scaled-up investments in adaptation, moving forward on the Green Fund, and supportive measures such as reduced emissions from deforestation and forest degradation as well as realising the climate finance of $100 billion a year by 2020.”

 

Insecurity and political instability

Political instability has plagued some of the Sahel’s countries for years. In Mali, the military coup of March 2012 brought an abrupt halt to 20 years of stable democracy. In its aftermath, terrorists who had occupied most of the northern region started heading south, intent on taking control of the whole country. In January 2013, a French-led, Chad-supported intervention stopped their advance. The conflict compounded the security and humanitarian crisis, in part by disrupting supply routes and causing food shortages. The crisis in neighbouring Darfur, Sudan, and the presence of an armed rebellion in the east did damage to Chad’s security that will last for many years. During Niger’s 50 years of independence, notes a report by the think take International Crisis Group, the country has seen two armed rebellions, four coups, seven governments and periods of promising democratic change as well as reversals.

In a region with porous borders, a political or security crisis in one country is often a serious threat to neighbours. These borders have benefited criminal networks and drug traffickers. The UN Office for Drugs and Crime has estimated that major illicit flows linked to criminal activities in the Sahel amounted to $3.8 billion annually.

 

Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon (second from right), along with World Bank President Jim Yong Kim (left), African  Union Commission Chairperson, Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma (second from left) and President Issoufou Mahamadou of Niger (right), talk to the media in Niamey.  (Photo by Dominic Chavez/World Bank)

Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon (second from right), along with World Bank President Jim Yong Kim (left), African  Union Commission Chairperson, Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma (second from left) and President Issoufou Mahamadou of Niger (right), talk to the media in Niamey.
(Photo by Dominic Chavez/World Bank)

How is the UN assisting?

The UN Office for Drugs and Crime recently helped broker an agreement among Mali, Morocco, Niger, Burkina Faso, Chad and Algeria to address the problems caused by drug trafficking, organised crime and terrorism. In July the UN Security Council authorised the deployment of a peacekeeping mission to assist Mali on its way back to stability.

 

Fragile economies

Agriculture in the Sahel, which accounts for up to 45% of gross domestic product in some of the region’s countries, employs a majority of the region’s work force and plays a central role in food security. It remains highly underdeveloped, though, characterised by low use of external inputs such as seeds and fertilisers, the absence of mechanisation and poor links to markets. Agriculture is dependent on three to four months of rainfall per year. ­

According to the UN Environmental Programme, the­ recurrent droughts of the 1970s and 1980s caused massive losses of agricultural production and livestock, loss of human lives to hunger, malnutrition and disease, massive displacements of people and shattered economies. Climate change could also have negative consequences on agricultural production and food security in the Sahel, the agency reports. All in all, the countries of the Sahel perform poorly on the UN Development Programme’s Human Development Index, a measurement of a country’s economic and social well-being.

 

How is the UN assisting?

The World Bank believes irrigation could allow the Sahel’s agriculture to overcome the challenges posed by a hostile environment and produce more food for its people. “Although desert and aridity define the Sahel, its vast water resources remain untapped,” said Makhtar Diop, World Bank Vice President for Africa, in a recent op-ed piece. “In a region where farming is the predominant economic activity, sadly, only 20% of the Sahel’s irrigation potential has been developed. Worse still, one quarter of the area equipped with irrigation lies in a state of disrepair.”

 

Content first published by Africa Renewal


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