The landlocked Republic of Chad is sometimes known as the “Dead Heart of Africa” because of its central position. The north of Chad is desert, the south a more fertile savannah zone. In between there lies the central Sahel region, a dry area which forms part of the Sahel belt. This is a 1000 kilometres-wide tract of semi-arid land which runs south of the Sahara Desert and spans across the African continent from the Atlantic Ocean to the Red Sea.
Chad is one of the poorest countries in the world and most of its people live as subsistence herders or farmers. A devastating drought in 2009 meant many farmers had little to harvest last year, leaving 2 million Chadians short of food. This year, rains have been better. But aid agencies are still warning that in central and western Chad, some areas have seen low yields or crops have been attacked by birds and locusts. In these regions, villagers are again facing a food crisis. Some families are resorting to survival patterns only seen after really lean years. Women are raiding ant hills for tiny grains and seeds and foraging for wild fruits. Families are also sending their young men and older children to the cities to look for work.
Many aid agencies are already active in the east, where unrest four years ago displaced hundreds of thousands across Chad, Sudan and the Central African Republic. But it will take time to deploy to other parts of Chad, particularly as roads across the country are poor and become impassable during the rainy season. The UN children’s agency (UNICEF) admits that chronic malnutrition remains a problem across Chad’s Sahel belt. The agency has 12 mobile teams which visit remote villages to assess children and refer them where necessary to hospitals and nutrition centres. UNICEF says these nutrition teams have already saved the lives of 5,000 children, though many more may have died before they could be reached.
Experts on the region say that because the Sahel area is continually prone to drought, food security can only be improved in the medium and long term if measures are taken to invest in agriculture and pastoral livelihoods. More drought-resistant crops, such as groundnuts and black-eyed peas, need to be sown. These are also less vulnerable than the traditional millet and sorghum to attacks from birds and insects. New farming methods are also required to cope with the erratic rainfall, such as a new drip irrigation system which has been developed by European scientists. Instead of flooding fields, which leads to high water loss from evaporation, the drip system delivers water directly to the roots of the crops. Tests of 900 kits across the Sahel region have shown farmers have increased yields and used much less water, leaving more for drinking and household use. And significantly, the drip system can be used by smallholders, who make up Chad’s farmers. The task of providing for Chad’s 10 million hungry and thirsty people will become ever harder with climate change. And since Africa is the continent which will be hardest hit, leading to increasing pressure on land and scare water resources, new crop varieties and better irrigation offer some hope to the farmers of Chad.