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There is an unseasonal increase in food prices in Burkina Faso. Credits: OCADES

There is an unseasonal increase in food prices in Burkina Faso.
Credits: OCADES

Zaki can’t afford to feed his family this year. He’s a young teacher in Burkina Faso. It’s one of a string of West African countries where food is getting scarce. The price of corn has increased so much Zaki can’t afford to buy it. His family must rely on their reserves of rice, but supplies dwindle each day.

Dassala and his family are hanging in for the moment. He is an elderly man, too old to provide for his family. His wife’s business isn’t looking so good. So they must rely on their son, an apprentice mechanic, to provide food. But it’s not enough, especially if food prices continue to rise.

“Thousands of families no longer know where to turn,” says Flavien Batiano of OCADES-Caritas Burkina Faso. “When food prices go up, people cope by migrating, selling livestock cheaply, turning to risky things like gold mining or fighting over grazing land and water.”

Aid agencies including Caritas say another food crisis is threatening West Africa’s Sahel region, the vast stretch of arid land running south of the Sahara. In Niger, 40 percent of people are suffering from a lack of food. A quarter of them, over 1.3 million people, say their needs are severe.

Caritas fears this year could be worse than the last food crisis, which was only in 2010. The short gap means peoples emergency reserves are depleted, their cattle sold and their savings gone.

A dozen Caritas organisations meet in the Bamako in Mali in February to coordinate how to respond best to the crisis. Caritas Internationalis Humanitarian Director Alistair Dutton says their priority will be to ensure timely, effective and coordinated action.

During the 2004 drought in the Sahel, the UN calculated that $1 would have been enough to prevent a child from becoming malnourished, whereas the cost for actually treating a malnourished child is $80.

“If the international community acts quickly now we can lessen the impact of another food crisis in the Sahel,” says Alistair Dutton. “Our experience shows that undertaking simple measures to ensure the protection of livelihoods, as Caritas are doing now, is the best response at this stage.”

These can be as straightforward as keeping men from leaving their villages through cash-for-work programmes and thus ensuring they work on next year’s crop. Caritas Mali is planning to distribute food and seeds to families at threat.

Caritas Burkina Faso is fighting child malnutrition. In 2009, Caritas set up centres to educate families on preventing hunger and on supporting recovery from child malnutrition. The programme reaches 255 villages and welcomes all children.

The cause of the food crisis is again drought. The Sahel region is frequently hit by drought, which has led to food crises in 1973, 1984, 2004-2005 and 2009-2010. Rainfall has halved in the region since 1954, according to a study last year by the Centre for Forestry at the University of California, Berkeley.

“We must invest in soil fertility. We need to promote irrigation, rather than rain-fed agriculture,” said Alistair Dutton. “Make agriculture more durable, so that communities in the Sahel can absorb these shocks.

Conflict is worsening the situation. More than 11,000 people have fled violence in Mali to seek refuge in northern Niger. They have urgent food, health and shelter needs. The influx of refugees is also putting a huge pressure on the local resident, who have barely enough themselves to survive in the arid environment.