Originally published on the 22nd May 2012.
Almost 19 million people in West Africa are facing a food crisis on a scale similar to one that gripped East Africa last year. Lessons from that crisis show it’s vital to act early.
Support for short and long-term solutions now is essential to prevent millions slipping into hunger and possible famine.
With our ongoing communications about this escalating emergency, you may have questions about what’s going on in West Africa.
Here’s a quick guide to understanding the crisis and how World Vision is responding.
What went wrong?
Poor rains have led to poor harvests. Crop yields have been nonexistent in some areas - and severely reduced in others. This has pushed food prices up to the point that many families can’t afford to feed their children.
Recent conflicts in Libya, Ivory Coast, Nigeria and Mali have resulted in an ongoing flow of refugees and returning migrant workers to areas affected by poor harvests, putting pressure on already stressed food supplies.
For the countries worst affected, these shocks have hit in a context of existing poverty where many families are already vulnerable and have few options to help them cope.
How many people are affected?
Almost 19 million across the region in countries such as Niger, Mauritania, Mali, Chad, and Senegal are either already facing desperate food shortages or are in imminent danger of such shortages.
Is the food crisis in West Africa a ‘famine’?
Famine is a very specific event - a really, really terrible one - in which we see lots of people of all ages dying as a result of food shortages. For the United Nations, the word has a technical definition of two or more people out of 10,000 dying each day, and acute malnutrition among a third of young children.
The West Africa Food Crisis does not affect everybody the same way, but affects vulnerable households in particular areas where contributing factors are hitting the hardest. This is quite a different situation to last year’s food crisis in the Horn of Africa, including famine in some regions of Somalia, where large portions of territory were fairly uniformly impacted by food shortages.
But we’re calling on supporters, governments and the international community to take action now to prevent the possibility of famine in the worst affected areas.
How is the current emergency different from previous crises?
The gap between the previous West Africa Food Crisis and the current one is barely two years.
Although the Sahel region is prone to droughts, the typical period between instances of drought was previously five to 10 years. Families often cope with food shortages by reducing the number of meals per day, the quantity of food in the meals, or the quality of the food they are eating.
In poor communities these coping strategies may be used every year to cope with the regular 'hungry seasons'. In the current emergency, families are facing prolonged and more severe shortages, and more are selling their assets - land, livestock, equipment - and taking on extra work in the struggle feed their families.
What is the impact on children?
Hungry children are more vulnerable to malnutrition and disease, and walking longer distances to find water can make them more vulnerable to attacks by animals and human predators. So far, the crisis has led to 1.3 million children becoming malnourished, with 400,000 severe cases.
How is World Vision helping?
World Vision is responding with a two-pronged approach - immediate lifesaving interventions as well as long-term solutions to make communities more resilient to future droughts and other disasters.
Short terms solutions include activities such as feeding programmes for acutely malnourished children, the delivery of food aid and replenishing village granaries.
Long-term solutions include activities such as drilling boreholes, helping families establish vegetable gardens and creating and strengthening community seed banks.
Learn more about the causes and context of the West Africa food crisis by reading in-depth analyses by World Vision Australia emergency staff.
How you can help