Africa, Combating Desertification and Drought, Development & Aid, Environment, Food and Agriculture, Gender, Headlines, Human Rights, Poverty & SDGs

DEVELOPMENT-WEST AFRICA: History Just Waiting to Repeat Itself

Moyiga Nduru

JOHANNESBURG, Jul 12 2007 (IPS) - Two years ago, several West African states found themselves in the grip of severe food shortages – with some three million people affected in Niger alone. Children died, aid officials wrung their hands, people marched in Niger&#39s capital, Niamey, to demand food…But were lessons learned – really learned – to ensure that the crisis does not recur?

Meagre harvests in Niger two years ago brought suffering to millions. Credit: IIED/Evelyn Hockstein

Meagre harvests in Niger two years ago brought suffering to millions. Credit: IIED/Evelyn Hockstein

Not according to a new report assessing the food security of people living in the Sahel, a semi-desert region between the Sahara and the tropics that stretches across Africa, encompassing the famine-affected countries.

&#39Beyond Any Drought&#39, launched Wednesday, was produced by the Sahel Working Group – an inter-agency coalition – and the International Institute for Environment and Development (IIED), a London-based non-governmental organisation (NGO).

"People blame locusts, drought and high food prices for the crisis that affected more than three million people in Niger in 2005," notes Vanessa Rubin, Africa Hunger Advisor for CARE International, in a Jul. 11 IIED press statement.

"But these were just triggers. The real cause of the problem was that people there are chronically vulnerable. Two years later, they still are."

In an analysis of Burkina Faso, Mali and Niger, the report notes that this vulnerability results in part from the marginalisation of poor farmers, and women&#39s lack of access to education and property.

As observers have also indicated, the Sahara&#39s encroachment southwards into the Sahel is compromising the quality of soils, putting rural communities in an even more precarious situation. "History will repeat itself unless governments in the Sahel and donor agencies adopt an entirely new strategy for the region," says IIED Director Camilla Toulmin in the Jul. 11 statement.

"This needs to build on the knowledge, skills and priorities of local people, strengthening local rights to land, soils and water, and giving people a voice in how decisions are made. Building local resilience is key to reducing vulnerability."

Accordingly, the report calls for increased aid to the Sahel, and better co-ordination between development and emergency relief efforts – an appeal echoed by others.

"The Sahel governments can support economic activities like beekeeping and ecotourism. The people can make small things like handicrafts to earn some money," Frank Musasiri, chairman of the National NGO Co-ordination Committee on Desertification in Kenya, told IPS by phone from the capital of Nairobi.

But, he noted, "Combating desertification in the Sahel will not be easy."

According to Richard Worthington of Earthlife Africa, an NGO based in Johannesburg, South Africa, "What&#39s clear is that Africa will have a reduced water supply. There&#39s already less water in the Sahel."

"The consequences for people living in sub-Saharan Africa will depend on the response of the international community," he said in an interview with IPS.

Sahelian food shortages of two years ago can be traced back to August 2004, when the rains failed. Those crops that survived the drought were consumed in large part by locusts that swarmed across West Africa later in the year.

Small harvests in October were followed by an initial United Nations appeal in November; however, virtually no aid was pledged.

The need for more investment in rural areas was also highlighted in the 2006 issue of the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation&#39s annual report, &#39The State of Food Insecurity in the World&#39.

"Public investment in infrastructure, agricultural research, education and extension is indispensable for promoting agricultural growth. Actual public expenditures on agriculture in many poor countries do not reflect the importance of the sector, particularly in those with high prevalence of undernourishment," the document states.

"External assistance to agriculture and rural development has declined compared with the levels of the 1980s," it adds.

"Climate change and degradation of ecosystems will pose new challenges for expanding production and conserving natural resources."

Environmental groups like the Greenbelt Movement of Kenya, founded by 2004 Nobel Peace Prize winner Wangari Maathai, encourage tree planting to combat desertification.

Musariri cautions that this approach has its limitations, noting that "when seeds come up, the plants are destroyed by goats, sheep and cattle, and there&#39s no replenishment".

An NGO active in Burkina Faso has shown that attempts are being made to address this problem, however.

&#39newTree-nouvelarbre&#39 enters into partnerships with community groups to ring-fence areas that are designated by locals for reforestation, to ensure that plant life is protected, and that reclaimed areas provide communities with a source of income (see: &#39Q&A: "The Sahel Should Already Have Been Green"&#39).

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