Oxfam has warned that up to ten million people in West Africa are in danger of severe hunger as harvests fail, drought deepens and food prices soar. The UK based charity has launched a £7million emergency appeal to aid some 800,000 victims who it is claimed have been reduced to eating poultry feed and raiding ant-hills for grains and seeds that the ants have stored.
The organisation says large numbers of children have been pulled out of school as families move to urban areas in search of food and work. Conditions are particularly bad in the Sahel region – a semi-arid belt that stretches across the southern Sahara – where malnutrition rates are ominously high due to lack of food.
At the centre of the crisis is Niger, where almost half of the population, some 3.3million people, are suffering from food insecurity. A further two million in Chad, 600,000 in Mali and 300,000 in Mauritania are also at risk, as well as many in Burkina Faso and the extreme north of Nigeria.
Cattle-herders are particularly vulnerable – many of their animals have died across Chad, Niger and Mali, which has forced families to leave their villages and cross into neighbouring countries in search of food for themselves and pasture for their animals.
‘We are witnessing an unfolding disaster which can be averted if we act quickly’, said Mamadou Biteye, who heads Oxfam’s work in West Africa. ‘The next harvests are several months away and people are already desperate. People are eating leaves and drinking dirty water. Unless we can raise money for this we will be forced to turn our backs on those most in need,’ he said. ‘That is why we are calling on the public, at a time when we know money is tight, to dig deep into their pockets to help those in the most dire need. Just a small amount will make a huge difference. For £20 you could feed a family for ten days.’
‘Donors need to act quickly before this food crisis becomes a catastrophe. Scale and speed are of the essence’, Biteye notes. ‘Five years ago when there was a similar food crisis in Niger the donors left it too late, lives were needlessly lost and the cost of the humanitarian operation soared. Money is urgently needed now to save lives and put lives together’.
In Niger, Chad and Mali, Oxfam is already distributing food, seeds and animal feed to the most vulnerable families; buying weak livestock from herders at above-market prices and making the meat available to the local population; vaccinating animals; and running cash-for-work programmes. Although Oxfam has gratefully welcomed the funding it has thus far received, the agency has admitted that the overall response by governments across the globe has been woefully inadequate given the scale and depth of the crisis.
The Niger emergency action plan – a joint UN and NGO appeal – still lacks almost half of the funds required. A total of $205 million has been requested.
The UK’s secretary of state for international development Andrew Mitchell said that he is ‘deeply concerned by the situation in Niger and Chad. The current humanitarian crisis has left millions of people without enough food to eat and thousands of children at risk of malnutrition.
‘Oxfam is working to deliver vital aid to those who need it most but they do not have enough funding to meet all the needs. Britain has provided £15 million to help deliver emergency food aid and treatment for malnourished children and I urge other donors to respond generously’.