Africa's Looming Food Crisis Could Affect 18 Million People

Drought, political instability, poor harvests, and bad policies are setting up the Sahel region for disaster.

The Mbera refugee camp in southern Mauritania on May 23, 2012. The UN set up this camp for people fleeing violence in northern Mali. (Reuters).

A massive food crisis is brewing in Africa's Sahel region. Already, some 18 million people in the region are confronting a severe food shortage. The hunger crisis is most immediately tied to inadequate rainfall, small crop yields, and high food prices, but conflict makes the situation all the more severe. A recent primer from the World Food Programme (WFP) draws attention to the precarious food situations in eight Sahel countries. In Gambia, crop production has declined by more than 60 percent since 2010. An estimated 3.5 million people face hunger in Chad, and that country's remoteness makes aid distribution especially challenging. Ongoing conflict in Mali, where 1.7 million people face hunger, has forced 320,000 people to flee their homes. Tens of thousands of them are now taking refuge in other food insecure countries.

Indeed, since a March 22 coup, Mali has been in chaos. Recently, an al-Qaeda-linked Islamist group declared its full control of the northern part of the country. This weekend, the group--aping the Taliban--destroyed several sites and part of a particular mosque it considered idolatrous in the historic city of Timbuktu. Mali's political instability magnifies the effects of food insecurity. The WFP's work there faces disruption, as does the work of other NGOs and international organizations. Many clinics and schools have been destroyed, and the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) fears that children will be forced to participate in armed conflict. The influx of Malian refugees to other countries has exacerbated regional food insecurity, not only because of the extra people to feed but also because some Malian refugees bring their livestock (a critical part of their economic livelihoods) with them. As the ICRC notes, 60,000 Malian refugees have settled in northern Burkina Faso, where "the available pastureland does not provide enough food for the approximately 150,000 head of livestock" they brought with them. In a potentially grave turn of events, the political situation also threatens to exacerbate the spread of crop-eating locusts in Mali. Experts are unable to evaluate the country's locust situation and to apply pesticide because of dangerous conditions and because rebels destroyed or displaced the necessary equipment and pesticides.

Restoring stability in Mali is an enormous political and military task, although the Islamist group's al-Qaeda ties seem likely to attract Western interest. As for the rest of the Sahel, the usual questions about how to lessen the effects of a famine and prevent future food crises remain. One obvious measure is to source more food aid from within Africa itself. This would not only boost African economies, but also reduce transportation time and costs. In Niger, for instance, a local factory provides much of the country's emergency food aid, manufacturing Plumpy'nut, a paste containing peanut butter and other nutrients that is acclaimed for helping children quickly recover from malnutrition. The factory in Niger also ships its products to other West African countries. The politics of this "no brainer" decision, however, are not so easy. Congress continues to demand that USAID follow a "buy American" tied aid policy, meaning that the food it donates must come from the United States. Some are calling for change, citing the benefits of a reform for immediate humanitarian relief and for Africa's long-term development. In February, USAID made an important first step to ending its "buy American" tied aid policy when it lifted this restriction on other types of foreign assistance (food, motor vehicles, and US-patented pharmaceuticals excluded). Ending tied aid is by no means a panacea, but it could be an important step in the right direction for aid reform.

While the ongoing food crisis in the Sahel is severe, almost 250,000 children there die from malnutrition each year, even under normal conditions. Of course, the term "normal conditions" hardly seems fitting for a region where drought has left millions of people food insecure three times in the past decade, signifying a desperate need for longer-term solutions to the Sahel's failing agriculture. The short-term need for increased food aid to the Sahel is also enormous. As of mid-June, just about half of the $1.6 billion needed for Sahel relief efforts had been funded; subsequent fundraising efforts have made a dent, but not a big one, in the amount needed.

This article originally appeared at, an Atlantic partner site.