Time to act is now to avert disaster in Africa’s Sahel region, UN officials stress

WFP Executive Director Ertharin Cousin (second left) and High Commissioner for Refugees António Guterres (centre) in drought-hit Niger. Photo: WFP/Rein Skullerud

7 May 2012 – Wrapping up a four-day visit to the epicentre of the food crisis sweeping the Sahel region of West Africa, two top United Nations humanitarian officials today urged the world to meet its commitments, both financial as well as political, to help those in need.

“The window of opportunity to save lives is narrowing by the day,” the World Food Programme’s (WFP) Executive Director, Ertharin Cousin, and the High Commissioner for Refugees, António Guterres, said in a joint statement at the end of their visit to Niger. “Today we appeal to the international community on behalf of the most vulnerable people in Niger and Sahelian countries. The time to act is now.”

Overall, there are currently 15 million people facing food insecurity in the Sahel, which stretches from the Atlantic Ocean to the Red Sea and of which Niger is a part of. The two officials warned that the West African country is facing a “deepening humanitarian crisis,” owing to the impact of a quick succession of droughts, abnormally high food prices and the failure of crops.

“In the Ouallam and Maradi regions, we saw fathers and mothers struggling to feed their families in villages where hunger has already taken hold in advance of the traditional hunger season,” the pair said. “The hungry poor – whether small-holder farmers or pastoralists – face a situation where savings are exhausted and there has been no opportunity to rebuild livestock herds.”

Ms. Cousin and Mr. Guterres noted that the situation has now been compounded by an influx of refugees who are fleeing conflict in neighbouring Mali, with tens of thousands of people seeking refuge in the areas worst-hit by the drought, joining the millions facing hunger.

In response to the crisis, WFP has scaled up operations to provide food assistance to almost four million people in Niger, while the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) is helping some 160,000 refugees who fled conflict in Mali to neighbouring countries.

“As we enter the lean season across the Sahel region, if we are to meet the food and nutrition security needs of the most vulnerable, whether refugees or the hungry poor, the international community must meet its commitments, both financial as well as political,” said the heads of the two agencies.

“Now is the time to mobilize resources, including timely financial support as well as coming together in order to find political solutions necessary to avoid the Mali crisis further threatening regional security and evolving into a global threat to security,” they added.

According to UNHCR, the ongoing fighting in Mali between government forces and rebel Tuareg fighters has left 150,000 displaced within the country, and forced more than 160,000 to find refuge in neighbouring Burkina Faso, Mauritania and Niger, while others have arrived in Algeria.

“Despite early response from donors, the needs remain great, the hunger season has started early and plans to help those at risk, whether local communities or refugees, are still significantly underfunded,” stressed Ms. Cousin and Mr. Guterres.


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