Mauritania, a largely desert country of just more than 3 million inhabitants, has been particularly hard-hit by soaring food prices. The country produces less than 30% of the food it needs to feed the population, and the rising cost of food imports is pushing the most vulnerable into desperation.
Though 65 percent of the population still makes a living through agriculture (and more than 76 percent among the country's poorest people), several years of drought and desertification have been forcing farmers just scraping by to abandon what little they have left to try their fortunes in the cities: the capital Nouakchott and Nouadhibou.
Last year, the country suffered through another dry spell in the cropping season, finished off by floods at the season's end. So for this year again, production is down, farmers have had no income, and now prices are soaring: millet is up 50%, maize is up 60% and sorghum has doubled in price compared with last year.
Yet Mauritania has greater agricultural potential it can tap. Presently only 20% of the country's arable land is cultivated, and with improved crop varieties and technologies, the flood plains in the south and along the Senegal River can be harnessed to produce much more.
FAO is delivering seeds, tools and fertilizers to villages in the country's southern and south eastern regions. Through emergency programmes under the FAO Initiative on Soaring Food Prices, villagers will receive seeds for sorghum, millet and cowpeas and receive training on the best techniques for raising these crops. They will also receive training in seed development so production can continue in the years to follow, as part of an emergency programme worth US$ 1.23 million.
With further investment, Mauritania could expand considerably its irrigated farmland areas using the resources of the Senegal River. Last season, just 11% of irrigable land was in fact irrigated, due to a lack of infrastructure or no infrastructure at all.