Millions of children in danger of malnutrition in Sahel, aid agencies warn

Climate change, drought and war create food and water shortages, Save the Children says

International aid organisations are warning of a growing hunger crisis in the central Sahel due to climate change, drought and insecurity.

About four million children under the age of five – about one third of those in Mali, Niger and Burkina Faso – are at risk of acute malnutrition in the coming weeks, according to Save the Children.

More than 10.5 million people across those three countries, along with Mauritania, are likely to go hungry during the upcoming agricultural lean period – that between harvests when food stocks are lessened – the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) says. The situation is compounded by the most severe drought in decades. Some 80 per cent of people rely on agriculture to survive.

Both Niger and Mauritania have produced 40 per cent less food than the five-year average, the ICRC said in a statement, with Mauritania also affected by bushfires.


Lean period

Conflict and insecurity is exacerbating the problem. "Violence in the Sahel is not only fuelling the food crisis, in many places it is instigating one. The situation is critical, and the lean period could spell catastrophe if a concerted effort is not made to assist the millions of people affected," said Patrick Youssef, Africa director for the ICRC.

At least two million people have been displaced across Burkina Faso, Mali, Niger and Mauritania, according to the ICRC – the vast majority of them in Burkina Faso, where almost 10 per cent of the population has been forced to leave their homes due to insecurity and conflict, meaning they cannot grow crops on their land at all.

“In some places in Burkina Faso people wait in line for 72 hours to access boreholes. Their lives are completely revolving around reaching water. Should the situation deteriorate further, we are facing the real possibility of people and animals dying of thirst”, said Mr Youssef.

Ukraine invasion

Some 38 million West Africans could be in need of emergency food assistance this year, Save the Children says.

The invasion of Ukraine has led to rising fuel and food prices across Africa – where countries were already grappling with the economic impact of the Covid-19 pandemic.

Earlier this month, UN secretary general António Guterres visited the region, tweeting: “The families I met today in Niger – like millions more in the Sahel – did nothing to cause the climate crisis, conflict or record food prices. Yet they suffer some of the most devastating consequences – hunger and displacement. My appeal to the world today: Don’t give up on the Sahel.”

Humanitarian response plans for Burkina Faso, Mali and Niger assembled by the UN and aid organisations have a combined target of $1.82 billion (€1.75 billion), with less than 10 per cent funded so far.

Sally Hayden

Sally Hayden

Sally Hayden, a contributor to The Irish Times, reports on Africa