Starvation in the Sahel
With 17 million people – one million of them children – at risk of malnutrition, SOS Children launched an emergency appeal for the Sahel region in 2012. Drought, very low and erratic rainfall, poor harvests, lack of pasture and fast-rising food prices have combined with devastating effects in places like the Madaoua area in Niger, the world’s second poorest country.
Weathering the worst
“Everything depends on the rains!” stresses Moussa Moudi, a local village chief. The previous year there was no harvest at all in the village. “We have gone through a bad time. We had to sell our livestock to buy grain at premium prices. Without money from villagers who work as migrant labourers in neighbouring countries such as Nigeria, we would have died,” he explains. Millet, the most important staple in Niger, is so expensive that many can barely support themselves. Hamissou Karaou, Director of SOS Children’s Villages Niger, says it is desperate: “Many people have got into so much debt that they cannot escape the hunger crisis.”
Surviving the food shock
To survive, families are eating cheaper foods and fewer meals. But especially worrying is that some people are eating the crop seeds needed for planting in the next rainy season just to get through the leanest times. Rapidly rising cereal prices in local markets have put the cost of replacement seed even further out of reach. Added to this many families have sold the ploughs, spades and bicycles they need to cultivate the future crops. Thus, they become even more vulnerable.
The impact on children
No group is more vulnerable than the under-fives. Dangerously underweight children like two-year-old Ibrahim (photo, right) are why SOS Children has extended its support in the region. As a last resort, his grandmother has brought him to a health clinic. When the SOS nurse checks, he weighs just 7.2kg – half what a child his age should weigh. The measuring tape she wraps around his weak arm confirms that he has serious malnutrition. His lower eyelids are white due to lack of a proper blood supply.
He also has a hunger oedema on his foot and anaemia. The nurse puts a red tape round his little foot, signalling that he needs to be admitted immediately to the special diet programme. This will include treatment with medicines and food supplements including high-energy, protein intensive ‘plumpy nut’ and vitamins to deal with vitamin deficiency diseases.
Collaborating closely with local leaders to prioritise needs, the SOS emergency relief operation in the Madaoua area has focused on:
- Delivery of emergency food relief
- Strengthening families
- Providing life-saving medicines
- Monitoring long-term requirements.
We have extended the provision of food aid via our network of SOS Children’s Villages and family strengthening programmes to support more of the most vulnerable children with monthly food packages and cover the worst shortfalls between harvests. For the most needy families, whose grain reserves are empty, emergency maize and millet have been a lifeline. Hamissou Karaou added: “SOS emergency relief food supplies have reached thousands of people so far, with over half going to children.” The aid also includes provision of drugs, special therapeutic foods such as peanut butter and cereal bars for malnourished children.
Planning for the future
We have recommended practical measures that could improve food security in the area, including:
- New boreholes, wells and safe water supplies
- Better food storage facilities to cut food losses
- Supporting farmer households with fertilisers, seeds and plant care products.
Investing in grain banks
To curb the uncertainty caused by food price instability, one initiative already underway is investment in grain banks. This will reduce the problems caused by large price fluctuations, by buying grain straight after harvest at a low price and storing it in grain banks. If prices rise and famine returns, the villagers can buy grain and seeds from these banks at the reduced cost, ensuring that they can afford food and better weather the crisis during the most difficult times. If more measures like this can be successfully implemented, fewer children like Ibrahim will find themselves on the brink of starvation.
Find out more about our Sahel Emergency Appeal.