Former Director-General  José Graziano da Silva
An opinion article by FAO-Director General José Graziano da Silva

In the two decades before 2015, West Africa made notable strides in reducing hunger, reducing the number of hungry people by more than 60 percent, well ahead of its Millennium Development Goal pledge.

Yet today in Nigeria – one of the region’s star performers in that period – we now see severe hunger increasingly quickly and widely in northeastern regions where civil conflict is uprooting people and preventing farmers from growing crops.

There is a growing risk that the impressive gains made recently will be reversed. We cannot let so much effort turn out to have been in vain.

I am visiting the region of the Lake Chad Basin at this very particular moment to raise awareness of just how urgently we must strengthen our response to the challenges there. So far, the inadequate attention and inadequate responses have only made those challenges bigger.

The Lake Chad Basin crisis (encompassing parts of Nigeria, Cameroon, Chad and Niger) is currently one of the largest humanitarian crisis in the world, with 11 million people in need of assistance. Among them 6.9 million people are severely food insecure, as well as 2.5 million displaced, which is second largest displacement crisis in the world.

It is important to keep in mind that this crisis, while catalyzed by conflict, is multidimensional and encompasses the security, humanitarian, climate change and economic issues that local populations in the Sahel region have long been facing.

The first priority is to support the affected countries in consolidating peace processes and, at the same time, responding to the humanitarian emergency.

In Nigeria’s Borno State alone, the number of people facing crisis is expected to rise to 3.6 million by August, almost twice the level of a year earlier. Around northeast Nigeria, more than 5.2 million people will be in need of food assistance during the lean season. On top of that, 2.4 million people have fled their homes due to insecurity. Damage to agriculture – ranging from farmers’ access to their fields to vital infrastructure such as irrigation schemes, storage facilities and extension services – has been extensive in the affected areas of Nigeria, northern Cameroon, southeastern Niger and western Chad.

Many of these people have already sold their belongings, including seeds, tools and animals, to survive.

Immediate livelihood support can ensure that critical hunger needs are met in the short-term. But this is only the initial step to reverse the current trend toward the depletion of livelihoods and consequent human suffering in affected areas.

The vicious cycle of destitution must be broken, and to this end we must ensure vulnerable populations have an opportunity to reap a substantial harvest and replenish their food stocks this year. Failure to restore food production now will lead to the worsening of widespread and severe hunger, and prolonged dependency on external assistance further into the future.

The time to act is now. Farmers need seeds in addition to food. One month ago the humanitarian community met in Oslo to pledge funds for the Lake Chad Basin. The planting season there starts in less than one month.

Agriculture cannot be an afterthought. More than 80 percent of people rely on farming, fishing and herding for their livelihoods.

The impressive gains of the past were achieved thanks to years of step-by-step agricultural development initiatives. We must ensure these are not wiped out by the current crisis.

We need to protect the assets and livelihood systems of farmers and pastoralists not only for today, but for tomorrow and the years to come. And this calls for longer-term resilience building.

A holistic approach is needed to address both the current main drivers of hunger, which include limited food production, high food prices and displacements, as well as the structural causes of vulnerability in the area, including demographic growth and competition over scarce natural resources.

The lack of access to basic social services – health, water, education – and to social protection, will inevitably jeopardize the lives of millions in a region that is highly vulnerable to shocks. Climate change in particular poses a menacing risk to an area exposed to droughts and floods.

FAO is enacting a three-year response strategy (2017 – 2019) to mitigate the impact of the crisis and bolster the resilience and food security of Lake Chad Basin communities affected by conflict. FAO will continue to support countries in the region collaborate with regional institutes such as the Permanent Interstate Committee for Drought Control in the Sahel (CILSS – le Comité Permanent Inter-Etats de Lutte contre la Sécheresse dans le Sahel) and humanitarian and development partners.

FAO is combining its emergency response – including seed provision - with medium-term programmatic priorities aimed at promoting viable livelihoods and diversification while reducing vulnerability and risk and working to prevent conflict.

The resilience of rural livelihoods is key to making sustainable development a reality by ensuring that agriculture and food systems are productive and risk sensitive.

United Nations agencies are also joining efforts to maximize the impact of their interventions. Synergies are being achieved between the World Food Programme’s in-kind food or cash-based transfers designed to allow households to protect their seeds and FAO’s fast-tracking of smallholder agricultural production through the provision of tools and fertilizers – and more seeds.

The crisis is complex, and so is the road to sustainable development. To effectively address economic, social and environmental impacts coherently, we must have a regional, integrated and comprehensive approach in which national actors are on the front line.

FAO is striving to make its contribution to a historical change toward progress. Peace and security are needed, and enhancing the resilience of vulnerable populations in the Lake Chad Basin can help bring that about and will be essential to sustaining it in the future.