Sahel food crisis 2012: drought response in Mauritania. Photo by Pablo Tosco/Oxfam. Licensed under Creative Commons CC BY-NC-ND 2.0
The Sahel (a region composed of Mauritania, Senegal, Mali, Burkina Faso, Niger, Chad, Sudan (North and South), Eritrea, Ethiopia and Somalia) faces issues resulting from its fragile institutions affected by corruption and the proliferation of terrorist groups within its borders. In addition, the countries of the Sahel have been characterised by irregular rainfall caused by climate change and the natural geographical context of the region which has provoked droughts and increased food insecurity. This article presents the current context of the humanitarian crisis due to food insecurity and drought, and addresses the importance of media coverage and research in facilitating actionable responses to the crisis. Finally, it assesses the role of youth populations in combatting food insecurity in the Sahel.
Climate change, food insecurity, poverty, and migration.
Climate change has caused desertification and droughts in the Sahel region, making it vulnerable to depletion of crucial natural resources such as water and crops. Temperatures have increased in recent years in the region, accompanied by a decrease in rainfall. Droughts, which for over 50 years have added greater economic stress to hundreds of local communities that depend on agriculture, have been a key factor contributing to impoverishment of local populations. In 2020, 80% of the population in the Sahel was living in extreme poverty, on less than $1.90 a day. Between 2021 and 2022 the number of people in situations of food insecurity in Mali, Mauritania and Niger has increased by 41%, 82% and 91% respectively. According to the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), at least 18 million people in the Sahel might face food insecurity in the next 3 months in Burkina Faso, Chad, Mali and Niger. Within this amount, 7,7 million are children under 5 years old who are vulnerable to malnutrition and 1.8 million are already severely malnourished.
In addition, climate change and droughts not only affect harvests but also exacerbate conflicts between communities in the region. Scarce resources such as water are the driving factor of violent conflicts, such as those between marginalised pastoral communities and farmers on the Liptako-Gourma border in Mali - conflicts which have caused the loss of crops in more than 100 villages. Furthermore, the Red Cross has recorded losses of between 30% and 50% of land under cultivation due to similar conflicts and insecurity in the provinces of Yatenga and Lorum, in the north of Burkina Faso.
Climate change and internal conflict have a secondary effect of intensifying the emigration of the population in the Sahel, forcing people to escape to other countries, primarily in neighbouring regions of the African continent. In Nigeria, for instance, over 2,5 million people had been forced to flee as of the end of 2018, including more than 2 million who were internally displaced. People typically migrate to other unstable but nearby countries due to the difficulties involved, including insecurity provoked by armed groups, lack of money to move further, lack of energy and exhaustion.
Countries like Burkina Faso, Chad, Mali and Niger are the most affected by droughts and supply chain interruptions, which has led to food insecurity. The Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) of the UN indicated that as a consequence of the conflict between Russia and Ukraine, food insecurity in the Sahel is set to worsen because the region is dependent on Russian and Ukrainian cereal imports. For instance, Ukraine exported 2,900 million dollars in agricultural products to Africa in 2020; 48% wheat, 31% corn, and the rest including sunflower oil, barley and soybeans. On the other hand, Russia exported a volume of agricultural products worth 4000 million USD.
What are the other causes of the humanitarian crisis in the Sahel?
One of the reasons why the Sahel is still stuck in an ongoing crisis is the lack of media coverage of the challenges in the region. When compared to other humanitarian crises across the world that are given copious media attention - which, in turn, facilitates the provision of aid - there is relatively little interest and coverage of the Sahel region. According to the Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC), the most unattended crises in the world are located in Africa, which indicates a failure from decision-makers, donors and the media to take concrete actions and decrease the human suffering in the continent. The NRC’s annual list of the most neglected displacement crises in the world shows the following countries: the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Burkina Faso, Cameroon, South Sudan, Chad, Mali, Sudan, Nigeria, Burundi and Ethiopia; seven countries on the list are located in the Sahel. While the Russian invasion of Ukraine is an important issue, so are the other humanitarian crises that have been developing for years in non-Western and developing countries.
The role of youth
There is a humanitarian emergency in the region that requires immediate help with the same level of attention as in other parts of the world in conflict, to prevent further crises. According to the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD), the population in the region is the youngest in the world, as around 65% of its people are less than 25 years old. The region’s youth have the potential to act as a catalyst to respond to food insecurity and stabilisation.The young population needs to be part of the actions to reduce climate change, especially in their communities as local change-makers for sustainable development, peace and the building of strong institutional structures.
A potential opportunity to respond to the humanitarian issues in food security and conflict resolution is the inclusion of youth in peacekeeping efforts, creating spaces where young people from the Sahel are considered key stakeholders in the process and local actors for peace. It is also crucial to avoid youth being recruited directly or indirectly by criminal groups, in such a way that the conditions for community youth empowerment are strengthened through international cooperation for local development. This could generate efforts in favour of CYIS's Sustainable Youth Goals, namely goal number 2 “Ensuring Good & Inclusive Governance”, goal number 4 “Conflict prevention and resolution”, goal number 9 “Action against Climate Change” and goal number 10 “Sustainable use of all resources”.
A consistent and reliable water supply is a vital factor needed to achieve food security. To increase water service in the region, technical, financial and scientific cooperation between the nations of the Sahel and international donors is needed. These international and regional actors may include the European Development Fund (EDF), the African Union, and the United Nations Central Emergency Response Fund (CERF), which should work together to achieve strategic connectivity of water for agriculture. Furthermore, scientific cooperation is needed for specific research on water treatment in the Sahel, and technical cooperation is key to implement the infrastructure and connectivity in the field.
As a regional, intergovernmental organisation that provides an institutional framework to promote development and security within its five member countries (Burkina Faso, Chad, Mali, Mauritania and Niger), the G5 Sahel can help strengthen synergies between these areas of work. On the other hand, EDF finances actions with disbursements for education, health, transport, communication, energy, water and infrastructure which are two of the key aspects to respond to the food crisis. In addition, CERF has a presence in Burkina Faso supporting displacement. However, as Burkina Faso is one of the countries with the highest level of drought in the Sahel, funding from CERF could be better directed at addressing the consequences of drought in that country, especially in provinces such as those previously mentioned (Yatenga and Lorum).
Finally, the role of youth during this process can be realised through three types of empowerment - educational, financial, and organisational - to enable them to influence decisions. Cooperation for youth can also be targeted at improving access to technology, technical guidance, and empowerment for financing water entrepreneurship. This could include, for instance, local water purification systems for the benefit of the community, installation of dry toilets to save water, precise and intelligent irrigation for using the right amount of water to increase production. The agricultural activity, the existence of efficient and inclusive institutions, the research and coverage of the problems in the region, the improvement of infrastructures and the proper management of resources are key factors to consider to respond to the issues of the Sahel from youth perspectives.