Press Conference by Deputy Emergency Relief Coordinator on Situation in Sahel

14 February 2012

Press Conference by Deputy Emergency Relief Coordinator on Situation in Sahel

14 February 2012
Press Conference
Department of Public Information • News and Media Division • New York

Press Conference by Deputy Emergency Relief Coordinator on Situation in Sahel


With a food crisis looming over Africa’s Sahel belt and potentially threatening up to 12 million people, a senior United Nations humanitarian affairs official said today that, even as regional Governments moved swiftly to put resilience-building strategies in place, the wider international community must take “decisive and generous” action to ward off disaster.

“We are extremely concerned that across the Sahel region millions of people will be affected by a combination of drought, poverty and high grain prices, which, coupled with environmental degradation and chronic underdevelopment, is expected to result in a new food and nutrition crisis,” Catherine Bragg, Assistant Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs, said at a Headquarters press conference.

Just back at Headquarters after a visit to Dakar, Senegal, last week, Ms. Bragg said that the West African country, as well as Burkina Faso, Mali, Mauritania, Niger, Chad, northern Cameroon and northern Nigeria were all likely to be affected in the coming months.  “Since September last year, we have been sounding the alarm that the situation in the Sahel is likely to become a major humanitarian crisis by spring of this year if nothing is done to reverse the trend,” said Ms. Bragg, who is also the Deputy Emergency Relief Coordinator.

Thanking donors for having provided some $136 million towards the revised $724 million Sahel strategy launched by the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs thus far, she said the contributions had allowed humanitarian partners to begin relief activities throughout the region, but much more needed to be done.  She called on all stakeholders, including donors and the Governments of the affected countries, to “act now”, recalling that not long ago the humanitarian community had urged early action to contain the food crisis in the Horn of Africa.

“We now have an opportunity to demonstrate that we have learned our lessons from that crisis; that both early action and efforts to rebuild resilience are critical to the Sahel,” she said.  “For many the crisis has already begun,” she continued, noting that an estimated 10 million people or more across the Sahel were struggling to get enough to eat, including nearly 5.5 million in Niger alone.  Further, more than 1 million children under the age of 5 years risked severe acute malnutrition.

While malnutrition figures had been difficult to ascertain in 2011, the early warning signs were already becoming clear, Ms. Bragg pointed out.  The poorest households, already struggling to recover from a similar crisis in 2010, were facing a poor and uneven rainy season, increasingly high food prices, falling cereal production and the loss of remittances due to the return of some 400,000 migrants from Liberia and Côte d’Ivoire.  Moreover, armed conflict in northern Mali had caused the displacement of tens of thousands of people in that country and neighbouring Mauritania, Niger and Burkina Faso.  “These people now need urgent assistance, too,” she said, adding that Governments and partners around the region had undertaken an assessment in 2011 to build a better picture of emerging needs.

It had become clear that the total number of people needing assistance could easily exceed 12 million, she warned, citing forecasts that pointed to a poor and early lean season — the period between harvests, usually lasting from May to August — which could start as early as March or April.  In response, the Governments of Mali, Mauritania, Burkina Faso, Niger and Chad had all declared states of emergency and called for international assistance, and most of them had put forward plans to deal with the crisis and build up resilience to such shocks.

Essential activities to that end, she said, included selling cereal and other goods at subsidized prices, distributing seeds and providing livestock support, as well as income-generating activities and replenishing national food security stocks.  As for efforts by the wider international community, she said that in December, the United Nations and its partners had developed a strategy to tackle the emerging food crisis by focusing on regional preparedness and cross-border issues.  The world body had also launched two consolidated appeals in Niger and Chad to raise awareness of the situation and allow donors to start contributing to early preparedness and response programming.

In addition, the Central Emergency Response Fund (CERF) had released $13.4 million to support programmes in Niger, Chad and Mauritania, with another $8 million under consideration, Ms. Bragg continued, emphasizing:  “We learned from experience in the Horn of Africa that early warning must be followed by early action.”  She said:  “Today we know what is coming and we know what to do to save lives,” adding that, during her visit to review OCHA’s preparedness and early response efforts in the Senegalese capital, she had discussed with key partners and supporters how the agency’s strategy would be implemented.

The key objective was to strengthen regional objectives and response activities while supporting regional analysis and coordination, she continued.  “We must do more to raise awareness of national Governments, humanitarian agencies and donors about the scope and cross-border nature of the crisis, which presents additional challenges,” she said, adding that OCHA would also support resource-mobilization efforts to ensure an early response to the crisis.  Responding early meant prepositioning food assistance, supporting blanket feeding for malnourished children and making available lifesaving treatment for acutely malnourished children, she explained.  “Early funding will be necessary to secure the resources required, and we need donors to be decisive and generous now.”

Ms. Bragg said that the overall $724 million revised appeal took into account existing national plans as well as OCHA’s earlier humanitarian appeal for Niger and Chad, including $480 million for food security and strengthening livelihoods through agricultural and pastoralist support.  Indeed, the importance of saving livelihoods could not be overstated, as such actions would mean saving more lives in the long run.  She added that some $243 million would be devoted to reducing mortality related to acute malnutrition through the integrated implementation of nutrition, health, water and sanitation initiatives.  It was very clear that humanitarian response could only be part of a longer-term strategy involving local communities, Governments, regional organizations, development actors and many other players, the Assistant Secretary-General said.

She announced that Valerie Amos, Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator, and Helen Clark, United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) Administrator and Chair of the United Nations Development Group, had prioritized collaboration between humanitarian and development partners to address the looming crisis and develop medium- to long-term resilience-boosting strategies.  The two officials were carrying out a first ever joint visit to assess the situation in Niger from 16 to 18 February.

Asked why the international community and humanitarian agencies had not employed a similar strategy to avoid the Horn of Africa famine, Ms. Bragg said that, although the alarm had been sounded in 2010, the early warning had not been followed up with sufficient early action.  Therefore, when agencies had first detected “trouble on the horizon” for the Sahel, they had not only begun to call for action to avert a food crisis, they were also working hard to raise awareness of the tenuous situation in the region, she said, pointing out that most of its countries were routinely ranked among the lowest on the UNDP Human Development Index.  “So, even if our projections are wrong, we should be doing this on a ‘no regrets’ basis because, given the current known conditions in the region, an intervention is required,” she said.

When asked about reports that the Government of Turkey might be considering a push to establish humanitarian corridors into conflict-wracked Syria, Ms. Bragg said solid information on that situation was scarce, largely due to the lack of access to Syrian territory.  Still, there were some figures on the numbers of wounded, and on the situation of persons displaced during the crisis.  The United Nations had been able to provide some support to the Syrian Red Crescent, she said, “but at this point, there is very little space for UN agencies to operate”.  There had not been much movement in that regard since the beginning of the crisis, she noted, welcoming efforts by all Member States seeking to change that situation.

* *** *

For information media • not an official record
For information media. Not an official record.