The international aid agency, Oxfam, has warned that some 13 million people are on the brink of a full-scale humanitarian crisis in Central and West Africa if an urgent action is not taken to stop the looming catastrophe.
The agency warned on Friday that tens of thousands of people in the Sahel region of Central and West Africa could die in the coming months if the international community did not distribute much-needed aid immediately.
The Sahel belt of Africa, which stretches from Senegal to Eritrea, is particularly sensitive to drought and famine. Some 10 million people were affected by a severe food crisis in the region in 2010.
Oxfam argued that Western governments and aid agencies risked making the mistakes of last year in the Horn of Africa where the famine could have been far less severe had there been a swifter response to the crisis as it developed.
The agency said that malnutrition rates across Chad, Burkina Faso, Mali, Mauritania, Niger, and northern Senegal were hovering between 10 and 15 percent and had risen in some areas beyond the emergency threshold level of 15 percent.
It said that more than one million children in the Sahel region were at risk of severe malnutrition.
In parts of Chad, Oxfam says, some villagers were digging up ant hills to gather grain that the ants have stored.
The agency says that drought, high food prices, severe poverty, and regional conflict were causing the crisis.
Oxfam’s regional director in West Africa, Mamadou Biteye, said millions of people were on the threshold of a major crisis. “All signs point to a drought becoming a catastrophe if nothing is done soon,” he said.
“The world cannot allow this to happen. A concerted aid effort is needed to stop tens of thousands dying due to international complacency,” the official said. “We witnessed last year the situation spiraling out of control in East Africa as the aid community failed to act swiftly. The worst can be avoided and thousands of lives will be saved if we act now. It’s that simple.”
Meanwhile, the hunger season has started early in the Tillabery region in western Niger.
Communities have seen their food stocks dwindle and their debts pile up. Families are migrating to the cities in search for food and jobs and some 33,000 children have dropped out of school, according to government figures, as they follow their parents.
Erratic rains have caused a poor harvest especially in Niger, Chad, Mauritania, Mali, and Burkina Faso.
Added to this, people have had little time to recover from the food crisis of 2010. People have also been hit by an increase in the frequency and severity of the food crises in the Sahel region in the last decade.
In Mauritania, 700,000 people, nearly a quarter of all families, have difficulty meeting their daily food needs. In Chad, 3.5 million people, more than 30 percent of the population, are food insecure. There has also been an increase in the population facing food insecurity in parts of Senegal.
According to the Food and Agriculture Organization, agricultural production in the region is down 25 percent from 2010. The grain harvest is down by 1.4 million metric tons for six Sahel countries. The hardest-hit country is Mauritania, with a 52 percent drop in crop production from last year, while Chad’s food production is down by 50 percent and Niger’s by 27 percent.
International non-governmental organizations have sounded the alarm that the Sahel could be crippled by food shortages in 2012 as a result of the last year’s poor rains.