Man in white cap and long green tunic tills dry and dusty land

75-year-old Mahammoud Traore supports a family of 21 people through his farming in the village of Dougouninkoro, Mali. Climate change has affected weather patterns in recent years and he has not been able to grow as much as he used to. Here, Mr. Traore attempts to farm in the dry and barren field outside his home. (Photo by Jake Lyell).

The Sahel crisis: Pressing need for resilient food systems

A challenging humanitarian environment

In the Sahel region of west Africa, we are confronted with one of the world’s most challenging humanitarian environments.  A series of crises in recent years has led to a steady deterioration in political, economic and social stability in Burkina Faso, Mali and Niger, as well as Chad and Mauritania. Widespread violence by armed groups, which has targeted civilians and public infrastructure including schools and hospitals, has increased political and social tension.

In addition to the hardships posed by COVID-19, the region has also struggled with a series of climate-related hazards, including an increase in the frequency and intensity of drought and flooding. Rainfall is erratic and the rainy seasons are getting shorter. When it does rain, it can be more than the ground can absorb. Last year, the region was hit by torrential rain that caused flooding in Burkina Faso, Mali, Chad and Niger, impacting more than 700,000 people.

Climate change worsening food insecurity

The United Nations estimates that 80 percent of the farmland in the Sahel is degraded, partly because the temperatures in the region are rising 1.5 times higher than the global average. As a result, the UN's Food and Agriculture Organization estimates that nearly 30 million people in the Sahel are food insecure, with 9.4 million people suffering from extreme hunger. As climate change accelerates, environmental degradation and increasing water scarcity will exacerbate conflict as the competition for scarce resources intensifies.

These multiple emergencies are driving what is becoming one of the world’s fastest growing displacement crisis. Nearly 3 million people have been forced from their homes, about 2.1 million of them internally displaced, but with an increasing number of refugees.

In conversation: addressing interwoven crises

Corus Executive Vice President Tim McCully, Chief Humanitarian Officer Tamara Demuria and West Africa Senior Regional Director Hamid Mansaray offer their thoughts on next steps in addressing the Sahel crisis through humanitarian support with resilient food systems at the center.

Tim: Corus' subsidiary Lutheran World Relief has long prioritized working in the Sahel, particularly in Niger, Burkina Faso and Mali — our presence going back more than 30 years. The region is going through such profound and difficult challenges that present dire humanitarian, political and security realities, and it's vital that we keep shining a light on these interwoven crises to make sure the region gets the attention and support it needs at this crucial time.

Since the 2012 coup in Mali, the region has been besieged by a huge rise in violent extremism and political stress — including yet another coup attempt in Niger — in a part of the world that was already suffering from crushing poverty and food insecurity. Combined with rapidly changing climates and more and more droughts that threaten tens of millions, this is a recipe for real suffering and instability that needs to be tackled now. It’s going to require coordinated, sustained and multifaceted approaches, and it’s important that we draw peoples’ attention to the urgency of the situation.

While there is real hope and possibility, we — and I mean donor governments, civil society, the private sector and the whole international community working with national and regional authorities — need to recognize this for the crisis it truly is.

Hamid: We also need to keep in mind the goal is to prevent future crises and that involves really opening the door to private sector investments in improving the standards for food production and safety. There is great agricultural potential in the region, and we need to make sure smallholder farmers have access to markets and capital.

Tamara: When we talk about the Sahel crisis, back in 2018 we used to think about food insecurity and how the region suffered recovering from severe food shortages. Today, this is exacerbated by humanitarian and protection issues as the violence has displaced close to 3 million people. More than 800,000 people have fled to the neighboring countries as refugees and asylum seekers. This puts tremendous pressure on the host communities — tensions over scarce resources are on the rise.

Unfortunately, the countries of the Sahel do not get enough media attention, and this regional crisis has turned into a global catastrophe from which it will be very hard to recover. With the expected lean season (predicted as the worst in decades), we will likely see immeasurable needs: food shortages, increased violence (including gender-based violence and deepening the vulnerability of women and girls) and displacement. It is hard to categorize it into one bucket of most pressing concern.

Tim: I think Tamara is right. It really is a perfect storm of interrelated and compounding problems that need to be addressed in an integrated way. National security and counterterrorism priorities cannot be separated out from the real need for legitimate and effective governance systems and structures. Similarly, the rising flood of refugees, IDPs and related humanitarian shocks cannot be dealt with in short-term aid programs that don’t simultaneously tackle fundamental needs related to food security, agricultural production and resilient markets, health care, education and human rights. Measures to address climate adaptation and mitigation needs are layered into all of these and have to be given equal priority.

Tamara: I think it must also be stressed that the Sahel operating environment for humanitarian actors is significantly underfunded and becoming alarmingly more dangerous. Humanitarian access is shrinking, and it's becoming harder for INGOs to operate in remote and very insecure areas (where vulnerability is at its highest peak). With scarce resources, we are just patching the problem and are unable to offer anything beyond life-saving solutions.

Central Sahel routinely experiences extremely worrying levels of human rights violations — yet the rest of the world does not stand up to it. The poorest take the brunt of the conflict, violence, destruction of livelihoods and live in constant fear. The unfolding humanitarian catastrophe is compounded by governments' and civil society's inability to meet basic needs and the lack of coordination and political will to drive the standardization of the processes.

Tim: There is a cause-and-consequence dynamic between growing extremism and poverty that needs to be highlighted. The more unstable and chaotic the region becomes, the more it hampers efforts to build stable and productive economies and allow for decent jobs and a quality of life for people. As poverty worsens, the more it breeds further resentment and frustration that, in turn, leads to even more violence. It's a vicious circle that — at the moment anyway — the countries of the Sahel and the international community have not made great progress in breaking yet.

Hamid: One effort we should lift up that is trying to make a dent in this vicious circle is the International Monetary Fund’s USD 238 million Catastrophe Containment and Relief Trust. The fund is for immediate debt service relief for 25 eligible low-income countries. The Sahel countries are part of this tranche of grants for debt service relief. It will help free up scarce financial resources for vital emergency health, social and economic support to mitigate the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic. These are countries that are practically hemorrhaging vital foreign currency in trying to service their debts. They are not able to pay for virtually any social services. This further undermines governance and makes the states vulnerable to violent extremists.

Tamara: And more needs to be done. Already we are facing hundreds of thousands fleeing and close to 3 million displaced. If we do not act, these numbers will skyrocket, and we will witness Sahel countries suffering like never before. The vicious cycle of poverty, insecurity and violence will only intensify.

Tim: My real worry is that the international community doesn't see this for the complex crisis it truly is and will address the crises in region in a piecemeal, ad-hoc manner. This is not something with a short-term or simple fix. It's going to take a full-on and coordinated regional and international effort on multiple fronts. Even more violence and extremism, increased migration and collapsing economies are growing dangers that only exacerbate human suffering.

Learn more about the work of the Corus International family in the Sahel.