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Drought in West Africa threatens millions

After thousands died needlessly because of the slow response to the Somalia famine last year, the world's donor nations now face another crisis: a drought in West Africa where up to 500,000 are on the brink of starvation.

Failed harvests and lack of rain are affecting millions of people in the Sahel region of eight countries in West Africa. The crisis is made worse by rising food prices and the return of 200,000 migrant workers to West Africa because of the civil wars in Libya and Ivory Coast.

Now the question is whether the world's wealthy nations will respond in time – or whether they will repeat the disaster of the Somalia famine, when early warnings were ignored for nearly a year before massive aid was finally sent.

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Among the countries suffering from the Sahel drought are Niger, Senegal, Mali, Mauritania, Chad, Cameroon, Burkina Faso and Nigeria. It's a vast, sprawling, arid region, with villages often in remote and inaccessible places, making it difficult to distribute food to them.

Unlike Somalia, the Sahel is not in the grip of war, and it is not controlled by a militant anti-Western group like al-Shabab, which has blocked aid from reaching much of Somalia. But there are security concerns in some parts of the Sahel, including Mali, where rebels roam the north, and Nigeria, where terrorist attacks have ravaged many districts.

The United Nations children's agency, Unicef, says it needs $100-million this year to save the lives of 500,000 children in the Sahel. It wants to provide food to a million people in the region, and so far it only has the resources to feed half of them.

"We're buying food as quickly as we can," said David Gressly, the regional director of Unicef in West Africa.

"Everyone has learned a lesson from the Horn of Africa famine. We're acting much more quickly this time. We're going to react in time and save a large number of lives."

The latest Unicef surveys have forecast that more than a million children will suffer acute malnutrition in the Sahel crisis. As many as 60 per cent of malnourished children can die in a food crisis, but the death rate in the Sahel could be higher than usual because the region has still not recovered from a serious drought in 2010.

Climate change is believed to be one of the reasons for the rising number of food crises in the Sahel, but high fertility rates and rising populations are contributing to the problem by putting huge pressure on the Sahel's arid farmland, which can't support many people.

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One of the worst-hit countries, Niger, endured a devastating drought in 2005, then again in 2010, and again this year. "The cycles are getting closer together, and that's a concern because households don't have time to recover from the last drought," Mr. Gressly said.

"The death rates could be higher this time because households are still under stress. It takes households that are on the edge and it pushes them over the edge. We've seen families starting to withdraw their children from school as a coping mechanism."

The wars in Libya and Ivory Coast, meanwhile, have forced about 200,000 migrants to return to the Sahel, instead of sending money home from their foreign jobs. "It's a double blow to families because they've lost the remittances and they've got additional people in the family to take care of," Mr. Gressly said.

A crucial question now is whether the emergency aid for the Sahel will be followed by long-term programs to strengthen the communities and help them prevent such crises in the future. After the 2005 drought, one study estimated that it costs $80 a day to treat a malnourished child, yet it would have cost only $1 a day to prevent the child's malnutrition if the money had been invested in development programs in advance.

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About the Author
Africa Bureau Chief

Geoffrey York is The Globe and Mail's Africa correspondent.He has been a foreign correspondent for the newspaper since 1994, including seven years as the Moscow Bureau Chief and seven years as the Beijing Bureau Chief.He is a veteran war correspondent who has covered war zones since 1992 in places such as Somalia, Sudan, Chechnya, Iraq and Afghanistan. More

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