FAO Regional Office for Africa

UN agencies warn that acute food insecurity and nutrition crisis are surging in the Central Sahel

Ahead of Ministerial Roundtable, an urgent call for action on multiple fronts


19 October 2020, Dakar –Three UN agencies are calling for greater stabilization efforts and assistance to the most vulnerable in Burkina Faso, Mali and the Niger by bridging the gap between humanitarian and development interventions, on the eve of an international Ministerial Roundtable in Copenhagen on the Central Sahel.

An estimated 7.4 million people in the three countries of the Central Sahel do not know where their next meal will come from. Compared with the five-year average, acute food insecurity has increased by 225 percent in Burkina Faso, 91 percent in Mali and 77 percent in Niger.

A recent upsurge in fighting has added to the woes of people who are already highly vulnerable to climate shocks. Many people have been forced to abandon their fields and livelihoods, and move to host communities who themselves feel immense challenges. The number of internally displaced persons (IDPs) in the region has risen from 70 000 to nearly 1.8 million in less than two years.

The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) and the United Nations World Food Programme (WFP) say investing in integrated programming will strengthen efforts to save lives, protect livelihoods and strengthen resilience.

“With the outbreak of conflicts, farmers and herders are facing difficulties in accessing land, seeds and tools. They are among the most vulnerable to human-made crises and natural hazards, and livestock-rearing alone accounts for about 80 percent of livelihoods in the region,” said Gouantoueu Robert Guei, FAO’s Sub-regional Coordinator for West Africa. “FAO has been upscaling its emergency response in the region, as well as resilience building efforts; however, to really make an impact, we need further strengthened collaboration to address the root causes of rising food crisis.”

The mitigation measures to respond to the COVID-19 pandemic have exacerbated vulnerabilities of communities including to food insecurity and malnutrition. Recent analysis of increased food insecurity and the socio-economic impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic in the Central Sahel found that the number of children suffering from acute malnutrition in 2020 could rise by 21 percent. This would bring the total number of malnourished children in the three countries to a staggering 2.9 million, including 890 000 children suffering from severe acute malnutrition.

“The Central Sahel region urges us to go beyond business as usual. UNICEF strives to protect the nutritional status of children under five and mothers through accelerating efforts to prevent malnutrition, and empower communities, families and caregivers to be part of the solution. These efforts will be successful only if communities, families, caregivers and mothers are empowered to prevent, detect and manage malnutrition. This is why our three UN agencies are stepping up joint actions”, said Marie-Pierre Poirier, UNICEF Regional Director for West and Central Africa.

“It is clear that conflict is driving hunger and malnutrition in the Central Sahel where rising food insecurity goes hand-in-hand with instability and increasing episodes of violence,” said Chris Nikoi, WFP’s Regional Director for West and Central Africa. “We need to act collectively to save lives, rebuild solidarity and safeguard development gains. WFP is ramping up lifesaving food and nutrition assistance and also scaling up resilience programming which addresses the root causes of instability to give communities a chance of hope for a brighter future.

In this context of exacerbated vulnerabilities, food security and nutrition interventions must respond to emergency humanitarian needs without neglecting interventions that are essential for strengthening systems and communities in the long-term. This also means multisectoral and innovative approaches to accelerate access to basic services.

A fast-growing crisis in a complicated context

Burkina Faso alone is experiencing the fastest-growing IDP crisis globally, with a 258 percent increase in IDPs over the last 12 months. Humanitarian access has deteriorated sharply as well as access to basic services, since insecurity has led to the widespread closure of health facilities, schools and markets.

In a fast-changing environment, food insecurity and malnutrition cannot be addressed without access to drinking water. The Central Sahel countries have among the highest mortality rate in Africa due to unsafe water, sanitation and hygiene services. Exclusion from services such as water and sanitation drives grievances that can lead to violence, for example stress on water supplies contributes to tensions and conflicts between herders and agropastoralists. In the Sahel, access to water supports the development of livelihoods, and is essential for sustainable pastoralism.

Understanding, acting and changing together

In a context where the Central Sahel faces multiple challenges,the three UN agencies strongly reaffirm the need to build resilience through inter-agency approaches, focusing on the same goals and the same vulnerable populations.

In addition, the Global Action Plan (GAP) on Child Wasting is currently being rolled out in the region. This initiative was launched in March 2020 upon request by the UN Secretary-General and is supported by five UN agencies (FAO, the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, UNICEF, WFP and the World Health Organization). This action plan is a framework for action to accelerate progress in preventing and managing child wasting towards the achievement of the Sustainable Development Goals. A multi-year, multi-country and multi-stakeholder RoadMap for Action is currently being developed in the region to facilitate implementation.