Friday, October 28, 2011

Building resilience in the Sahel

IRIN: In 2005, drought and famine hit the Sahel, claiming many lives. The pattern was repeated in 2010, with the crisis most acute in Niger. And now the early warning signs are there for problems again next year, in 2012.

Sahelians have always had their ways of coping with bad years. Not so long ago the cycle could be tracked by the size of women’s gold earrings. In major drought years the gold would have to be sold, and for a time the women would wear replica ornaments of painted tin. Then gradually they could start to buy gold again, until eventually their earrings were back to their former size.

But successive droughts, coming this close together, tax families’ resilience to the limits. Not just gold has to be sold, but productive assets too - livestock, tools and land - making it almost impossible for the family ever to get back to its position before the crisis. A government study of 14 agro-pastoral areas in Niger found that pastoralists with small herds had on average lost 90 percent of their livestock due to successive droughts. International aid has kept people alive - more successfully in 2010 than in 2005 - but it has not stopped this kind of progressive impoverishment.

After the 2005 famine, the Sahel Working group, an informal grouping of UK and other European aid agencies, commissioned a study (entitled Beyond Any Drought) - on the lessons which could be learned from the way the crisis had been handled. Now its author, Peter Gubbels of Groundswell International, has repeated the exercise. The new publication, Escaping the Hunger Cycle; Pathways to Resilience in the Sahel, looks at what happened in 2010, what has changed for the better, what challenges remain, and what can be learned for the future.

One of the continuing problems identified in the report, and one which still has not been solved, is a conceptual issue of how you think about crisis and normality in areas where child malnutrition is always at a level which would elsewhere denote an emergency situation....

"Drought has turned farmland into useless soil and sand" A farmer examines the soil in drought stricken Niger during the 2005 famine. Still from a Voice of America TV report

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