FAQs: West Africa Sahel drought and hunger crisis

Updated: Read our quick guide to learn more about the crisis and how we are responding to immediate and long-term needs in the region.

By James Addis. Photo by Justin Douglass.
Published October 5, 2012 at 12:00am PDT

The onset of the rains and harvest season in West Africa will offer temporary relief from the current hunger crisis, but much more needs to be done to ensure the region has sufficient food in the long term.

According to a recent report commissioned by World Vision and Save the Children, Ending the Everyday Emergency ,” a lack of ability to access, grow, and store food year after year means millions of children live in a state of permanent food crisis.

Consequently, while still addressing immediate relief needs, World Vision is placing more emphasis on improving the resilience of communities during adverse weather conditions and addressing the underlying causes of cyclical food crises to ensure long-term food security. 

Here’s a quick guide to understanding the crisis and how World Vision is responding to immediate and long-term needs in West Africa.

Q: What has gone wrong?

In recent years, recurring droughts have led to poor harvests. Crop yields have been non-existent in some areas and severely reduced in others.

The gap between the previous food crisis and the current crisis is barely two years. Affected populations have exhausted their traditional means of coping with these kinds of emergencies.

Q: How many people are currently affected?

Almost 19 million people in the region are affected by food shortages. The worst affected countries are Niger and Mali. Also hit hard are Burkina Faso, Chad, Senegal, Mauritania, and Gambia.

More than 1 million children  are at risk of severe acute malnutrition.

Q: Has recent heavy rainfall improved things?

It’s true that rainfall has markedly increased since mid-July. This has proved a mixed blessing.

On one hand, it has permitted a normal start to the growing season in some areas and the expectation of a good harvest. In other areas, however, it has disrupted crop production due to extensive flooding.

Rains have also provided ideal breeding conditions for the desert locust. Swarms of locusts can destroy a farmer’s entire crop within hours.

Q: How is instability in the region making things worse?

Since March, much of Mali’s vast northern desert region has been overrun by rebel groups, prompting extreme shortages of food, water, and fuel, and forcing tens of thousands of refugees to flee to Mauritania, Niger, and Burkina Faso.

The refugees put further pressure on host communities already suffering food shortages.

Q: What is the impact on children?

Children, especially those under 5, are more vulnerable to malnutrition than adults and are the first to die from starvation. 

The food crisis is taking a toll on Rakia and her three children, as well as other families in Niger.

Older children who are hungry find it hard to concentrate on lessons, or they may drop out of school entirely. Schooling is further disrupted when girls seek domestic work in the cities to support their families.

Alternatively, entire families leave hard-hit areas in search of food and opportunities elsewhere, also causing children to forgo educational opportunities. 

Q: How is World Vision responding?

World Vision has extensive programs in Niger, Mauritania, and Mali, designed to address long-term and immediate food needs for more than 1 million people.

Activities to help ensure long-term food security include: 

> Establishment of vegetable gardens with advanced irrigation techniques
> Implementing Farmer Managed Natural Regeneration (FMNR)
> Educating parents on child health and nutrition
> Vaccinating livestock
> Distributing seeds
> Drilling additional wells

Activities to meet immediate needs include:

> Nutrition programs for children
> Food distributions
> Food-for-work programs
> Cash-for-work programs
> Restocking cereal banks

Q: What is Farmer Managed Natural Regeneration, and how does it help?

Without trees and ground vegetation, floods and winds sweep away precious topsoil and leach nutrients from whatever soil is left. Countries such as Niger have suffered extensive deforestation, causing much arable land to turn into desert.

By encouraging the growth of indigenous trees, World Vision aims to reverse this process, make barren areas fertile and productive again, and help ensure long-term food security. Areas practicing FMNR in Niger have already seen increased crop yields and family incomes double.

Q: How much cash does World Vision need?

World Vision is appealing for $62 million to respond to the West Africa crisis. So far, we’ve raised $35 million.  

Q: What are the consequences of inaction?

The consequences will be recurring cycles of hunger and malnutrition; mass migration from rural to urban areas; extensive loss of livestock; exorbitant food prices; an ever-diminishing ability of affected populations to feed themselves; and continued loss of life.

Q: What is World Vision’s history in West Africa?

World Vision began work in West Africa in 1973 by providing emergency relief in drought-hit Niger. In 1975, we began water, agriculture, and literacy projects in Mali. Currently, World Vision works in seven countries in the region — Chad, Ghana, Mauritania, Mali, Niger, Senegal, and Sierra Leone.

More than 360,000 children in the region benefit from World Vision child sponsorship programs designed to improve their access to healthcare, clean water, and education, and provide better economic prospects for their families. 

Learn more

Want to understand the difference between drought, food crisis, and famine?  Check out an infographic on our blog for a visual breakdown of these concepts. 

Four ways you can help

Please pray for families in West Africa who are impacted by the food crisis, and for those in the Horn in Africa who are still suffering from the drought and food crisis there during the past year. Pray that all would find the nutrition they need, and pray for peace and stability in the insecure regions.

Make a one-time gift to help provide life-saving food and care to hungry children. Your donation will help deliver emergency food aid, agricultural support, and more to children and families at risk from food shortages.

Give monthly to provide assistance for children suffering from hunger. Your monthly contribution will help provide critical interventions like emergency food aid, agricultural assistance, clean water, and more to those in greatest need. 

Speak out. Urge your members of Congress to protect the International Affairs Budget from drastic cuts. This budget funds life-saving interventions around the world, including West Africa. Making up only about 1 percent of the entire budget, there are few places in the U.S. federal budget where dollars translate so directly into lives saved.