In parts of West Africa, lack of rain and failing crops have left families struggling for food. Save the Children and other charities are already on the ground in our hard-hit region known as the Sahel. They are reaching children who are most at risk – but we urgently need to raise awareness of this emergency. The Sahel is an arid, impoverished region and it is in the Sahel where one million children live on the fringe of survival due to a food shortage that threatens many with severe acute malnutrition.
Water shortages are adding to the misery for children and families in northern Mali. Children are always the most vulnerable in any emergency. The hunger crisis in countries that comprise the Sahel – Mauritania, Mali, Niger, Burkina Faso, Senegal and Chad – are no exception. Vast numbers of families already are unable to provide their children with enough food because of extreme poverty, skyrocketing food prices, violence and droughts. The sustained nature of these problems has made it all the harder for families to bounce back when a crisis is over. The region’s last hunger crisis in 2010 left no time for families to recover.
Even absent the current crisis, children in the Sahel already face some of the world’s worst under-5 mortality rates. Other factors place countries in the region near the bottom of the UN Development Program’s annual Human Development Index.
In Niger, where more than half of children do not attend school at all, there are reports that children are leaving classrooms to help their families earn incomes, which may expose them to exploitation. And, as children eat less, and eat less nutritious foods, they can become malnourished and at risk of debilitating diseases that can quickly kill if not treated.
Aid agencies that have worked in the Sahel for decades, are already responding to the growing crisis. They are expanding their programmes in Niger, Mali and Burkina Faso; sending expert staff to bolster our in-country teams; sending staff to work in Mauritania.
We live in a world where we know how to prevent extreme hunger, yet people still die from a lack of food. 2011 saw the worst hunger crisis this century in the Horn of Africa. More than 13 million people, most of them women and children, have been affected. Lives and livelihoods have been devastated, pushing people into poverty that could cause them suffering for years to come. The crisis continues into 2012 and is spreading across the continent’s barren, drought-affected zones.
The greatest tragedy is that the world sees disasters such as this coming but fails to prevent them. Early signs of an oncoming food crisis were clear many months before the Horn of Africa emergency reached its peak. Yet it was not until the situation had reached crisis point that the international system started to respond at scale.