Lethal "cocktail" threatens Africa's Sahel

Fri Mar 16, 2012 2:09pm EDT
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By Abdoulaye Massalaatchi

SINEGODAR, Niger (Reuters) - Abdoulaye Mahamadou watches with a growing sense of trepidation as the new arrivals to his Niger desert village emerge every morning from flimsy tents made from cloth rags and sticks.

Mahamadou, chief of the 1,600-head village of Sinegodar, is doing all he can to help them. But these 13,000 refugees from a Tuareg rebel uprising just over the border in Mali are quite literally eating him out of house and home.

"Just today I had 200 come to ask me to find them something to eat. But the people of this village are more in need than ever - they haven't got any food either," he told Reuters.

Life has always been precarious in Sinegodar and hundreds of villages like it across the Sahel, the parched belt of land spanning nearly a dozen of the world's poorest countries on the southern rim of the Sahara.

But this year millions face not only failed rains but also the after-effects of the Libyan war to the north and the shockwaves from Nigeria's battle with Islamist sect Boko Haram to the south.

"This year there is one factor on top of the other. It is a cocktail which is putting enormous strain on households across the region," said Madeleine Evrard Diakite, Niger-based adviser for British charity Oxfam.

Climate change has made Sinegodar and other settlements across the Sahel drier by the year, subjecting their populations to an ever longer yearly "lean season" when food stocks dwindle but the new harvest is still months off.

The U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization estimates local cereal output fell 25 percent in 2011, and Mauritania and Chad saw huge 50 percent drops. It says more than 16 million people will be hit by food shortages over this year's lean season, which is due to start in a matter of weeks.   Continued...