GLOBAL INFORMATION AND EARLY WARNING SYSTEM ON FOOD AND AGRICULTURE 

SPECIAL ALERT No.289

SIERRA LEONE

Date: 18 January 1999

(Circulated only for countries where foodcrops or supply situation conditions give rise to concern)


RAPIDLY DETERIORATING FOOD SITUATION IN SIERRA LEONE

Following the recent escalation of violence in Sierra Leone, the food supply situation has seriously deteriorated, virtually wiping out the modest gains in food security in Freetown and surrounding areas where peaceful conditions had taken hold following a successful campaign of the ECOMOG forces against the rebels. Since 6 January 1999 when rebel forces took several parts of Freetown, the capital's residents have been totally isolated, with hardly any food, water and electricity. With continued fighting despite diplomatic efforts to negotiate a cease-fire, their situation has become desperate and could degenerate into famine as food stocks are nearly depleted and fighting is blocking food supplies from the interior of the country. External food assistance to the country has virtually dried up, following the evacuation of staff of humanitarian agencies to neighbouring countries. In addition, warehouses belonging to aid agencies have been looted by the rebels fleeing ECOMOG forces, further reducing the ability of agencies to respond quickly to the crisis.

Fighting in the east, notably in Bo, Kenema, Koidu and Makeni in late 1998 had already severely disrupted food distribution in these areas, and caused large population displacements. It is estimated that about 80 000 people have been displaced following the upsurge of violence and UNHCR estimates that there are currently around 350 000 people displaced within the country, most of them in Kenema, Bo (the second city of Sierra Leone) and in the western border area of Kambia, possibly intending to cross into Guinea. The food supply situation is precarious in these areas and is expected to worsen as a result of the severe disruption of food assistance activities previously organized from Freetown. Only very limited humanitarian activities can now be undertaken through cross-border operations from neighbouring Guinea.

In addition to the halt in commercial imports through the Freetown seaport, the main roads linking Freetown to the rest of the country are closed, preventing the flow of food supplies from the rural areas. Roads linking the main towns are also closed and insecurity prevents most trading activities. Although the harvest of the main 1998 rice crop, estimated at around 400 000 tonnes (about 80 percent of the 1997 level), was completed in December, insecurity and poor infrastructure will severely hamper the marketing of the crop. Rice is the main staple in Sierra Leone but some other foodcrops such as millet, sorghum, maize and cassava are also produced. If fighting and insecurity persist into the next rice cropping season starting in April, most agricultural rehabilitation activities planned for 1999, including seeds and tools distribution and technical assistance, will be delayed or remain very limited. The area planted to crops will be reduced and the 1999 crop could be much lower than the 1998 level, which was itself below pre-crisis levels. As a result, Sierra Leone will rely even more heavily on food assistance to meet its basic food needs.

Before the escalation of fighting, WFP was providing food assistance to about 63 000 people in the country. Distributions have now been suspended, although available food stocks are sufficient to feed internally displaced persons (IDPs) in Bo and Kenema for at least two months. The Red Cross Societies have reinforced their activities in Guinea and Liberia and upgraded their contingency plans for Sierra Leonean refugees. In Conakry, they have planned food and health assistance for about 20 000 refugees over a six-month period. The situation is most critical in Freetown where its population, estimated at around 1 million, is facing severe food shortages that could result in starvation if the fighting continues and impedes delivery of food and other humanitarian assistance.

 

This report is prepared on the responsibility of the FAO Secretariat with information from official and unofficial sources. Since conditions may change rapidly, please contact Mr. Abdur Rashid, Chief, ESCG, FAO, (Telex 610181 FAO I; Fax: 0039-06-5705-4495, E-Mail (INTERNET): GIEWS1@FAO.ORG) for further information if required.

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