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Raising the profile of the hunger crisis in The Gambia

Many countries across the Sahel region of Africa are facing massive food shortages this year and in the Gambia, the agriculture minister warned in March that more than two-thirds of crops had failed during the last growing season.

Whereas previously, this small African country has ridden out food crises, a combination of poor rains and high food prices led the minister to appeal for international assistance. Three-quarters of the population use farming as a way to earn their living and many households are running out of food supplies. The government of The Gambia has estimated 1 million people are in need of help.

With a population of 1.7 million, that means more than half of all Gambians face going hungry this year. One of The Guardian’s reporters recently visited the Central River region of the country. One farmer there explained that the situation was so bad, all he could do was either sell his livestock and find a job in the nearby town or buy some provisions in the hope that his family would receive aid soon. Given unemployment is high and jobs are hard to find, it’s likely the second course of action may be his only option.

As food supplies dwindle, many rural households have already resorted to having just one meal a day. Farmers have also been using the grain which is needed for next season’s planting. Another farmer in the Central River region summed up his situation to the news agency IRIN, saying quite simply - “I do not have any money to invest in the next planting season”.

Concern is mounting how The Gambia’s population will cope over the following months. A spokesperson for the United Nations (UN) Food and Agriculture Organization said it would be essential for the country’s people to receive drought-tolerant seeds and other supplies like fertiliser, so that they can begin to plant for the next season. Without such assistance, families will not have the resources to help themselves. Though The Gambia has made progress in reducing poverty over the last decade, nearly half its population still survives on little more than a dollar each day.

Aid workers say warnings have been issued early enough and there is time to act. The UN World Food Programme has already announced that it will provide food assistance for over 60,000 people across five rural districts to “avoid a further deterioration in the nutrition status of the most vulnerable, especially women and children”. With revenues from tourism having dropped in recent years and the government heavily in debt, the Gambia does not have enough money to solve this agricultural crisis on its own. The UN Central Emergency Response Fund has provided 4.8 million dollars in response to the crisis, but if families are to see their way through the year, help must come soon.

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