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WFP warns annual 'lean season' set to strangle Sahel

As household food stocks begin to run low across the Sahel region of West Africa, WFP has urged the international community to continue supporting programmes which mitigate the very worst effects of food shortages among the most vulnerable.

Every year is a crisis year for the poorest people of the Sahel
Mustapha Darboe, WFP Regional Director for West Africa
Every year, millions of people across the Sahel endure a precarious few months between the exhaustion of their household food stocks and the new harvest.

After the food crisis that engulfed the region last year, this annual ‘lean season’ is starting earlier than usual in some of the world’s poorest countries.

Feeling the bite

Many people are already feeling its bite despite what was generally a good harvest across the Sahel at the end of 2005.

This year, WFP aims to feed 3.3 million people – well over half of them young children – in the Sahelian countries of Mauritania, Mali, Niger and Burkina Faso, through supplementary feeding at nutrition centres and community health clinics, as well as through other post-crisis food-aid programmes.

The cost is US$54 million, but to date only US$16.5 million – or 30 percent – has been received.


“Every year is a crisis year for the poorest people of the Sahel,” said Mustapha Darboe, WFP Regional Director for West Africa.

“For too long this has been widely considered to be normal and acceptable. It is not.

"People should not be chronically short of their daily needs in the 21st century.”

“Last year’s crisis in the region, especially in Niger, was a wake-up call to everyone; invisible hunger and unchecked poverty kill people in West Africa,” he said.

Concern for Maurtitania

WFP is particularly concerned that its operation to feed over 400,000 people in Mauritania is drastically short of funds and facing almost immediate breaks in food supplies.

Of the US$18 million required for its work this year, WFP has to date received just US$920,000.

A serious break in cereal stocks is looming as early as June. Mauritania has suffered successive years of drought which, combined with the ravages of the locust invasion of 2004, have eroded livelihoods and left many in the southern agro-pastoral zone living precariously.


Malnutrition rates among young children are well beyond the emergency threshold and cereal prices on rural markets are as much as 50 percent above the average for this time of year.

WFP has recently expanded its operation to include parts of the country not previously covered by its distributions, in particular the far south east.

Emergency supplementary feeding centres are also being opened in partnership with the Ministry of Health, UNICEF and non-governmental organisations to reach 18,000 malnourished children and 14,000 vulnerable mothers.

Niger Scarred

No country in the Sahel faces a more difficult lean season than Niger, where last year’s crisis has left a deep scar, pushing thousands of the poorest further into poverty and debt.

Together with the Ministry of Public Health and UNICEF, WFP is working to supply feeding centres around the country with vitamin-enriched food designed to help young children fight off malnutrition.

Donor response this year is encouraging, allowing WFP to secure supplies to the centres until September.

Although WFP has worked with the government to improve household food security through food-for-work projects and the restocking of village cereal banks, there remain concerns that should food prices rocket upwards, many of the poorest will again find themselves in need of urgent assistance.

Bolstering recovery in Mali

In Mali, WFP is shortly to roll out its operation to address the needs of this year’s lean season and bolster recovery from last year’s crisis.

It will target 740,000 people, 175,000 of them malnourished children under five.

As in Niger, the prime focus of WFP’s work is to improve the overall nutritional well-being of children under five years of age, as well as the rehabilitation of land and assets to equip people with the means to overcome future natural disasters. The cost of the operation in 2006 is US$10.2 million.

Alarming malnutrition rates in Burkina Faso

In Burkina Faso, WFP is planning to feed 43,000 children and 11,000 mothers in a bid to stem the alarming rates of malnutrition in the country.

Forty percent of children under five are underweight, while the global acute malnutrition rate is a disturbing 18.6 percent.

“WFP is working to meet the needs of some of the poorest people in the world in West Africa. But poverty that kills cannot be addressed with food alone.

This region deserves higher priority among the international community.

Poverty here is not a case of ‘out of sight, out of mind’. If we fail in West Africa, we will all feel the effects,” said Darboe.