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Food insecurity: UN calls for urgent, long-lasting action in Africa

The number of hungry people in West and Central Africa is predicted to reach an all-time high of 48 million people (including 9 million children) if immediate and effective solutions to this crisis are not provided.

More than 35 million people (including 6.7 million children) in the region, or about 8% of the assessed population, are currently unable to meet their basic food and nutrition needs, according to the most recent Cadre Harmonisé food security analysis.

Concerningly, 25,500 people will go through catastrophic hunger (phase 5) from June to August 2023 in conflict-affected areas of the Lake Chad Basin and the Liptako-Gourma region (Burkina Faso, Mali, and Niger). During this time of the year, families struggle to meet their basic dietary needs until the next harvest because their food reserves from the previous crop are depleted.

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) urged governments throughout the region to increase support and investments in food security and nutrition programmes that strengthen community resilience and safeguard people’s lives in a joint statement at the Network for the Prevention of Food Crisis in West Africa’s annual meeting in Lomé (Togo).

“The food and nutrition security outlook for 2023 is extremely worrying and this should be the last wake-up call for governments of the region and their partners,” said Chris Nikoi, WFP’s Regional Director for Western Africa Region.

“Strengthening the resilience of communities has to become a singular and collective focus for us all if we are to pull this situation back from the precipice before it is too late,” Nikoi added.

Food insecurity and malnutrition persist and are spreading from the Sahel towards coastal countries due to persistent insecurity, climate shocks, high food prices, the economic fallout from COVID-19, and the impact of the conflict in Ukraine. This is true despite the good harvest prospects, improved market situation, and increased estimates of cereal production across the region.

According to the Cadre Harmonisé analysis, food insecurity increased by 20% in Benin, Cote d’Ivoire, Ghana, Guinea, Guinea-Bissau, Liberia, Sierra Leone, and Togo in the final quarter of 2022 compared to the same time last year. 25 million women, men, and children in Nigeria alone are experiencing moderate or worse food insecurity, which means they are at risk of developing an emergency food security situation if an immediate response is not given.

“The Sahel is teetering on the brink of full-blown catastrophe; we are seeing food availability decline in most countries, and fertilizer prices are on the rise”, said Robert Guei, FAO’s Sub-regional Coordinator for West Africa.

“This could have a negative impact on harvests next year and worsen an already-grave situation for many rural communities. We must act now to shore-up rural livelihoods before it is too late” Guei added.

Despite efforts by governments and their partners, acute malnutrition in children under 5 is a problem, especially in Nigeria and the Sahel region. Rates in some areas of Sénégal (Louga and Matam), Mauritania (Gorgol and Guidimaka), north-eastern Nigeria (Yobe and Borno states), and Niger exceed the 15 percent emergency threshold (Dogon and Doutchi).

Additionally, many regions surrounding the Lake Chad basin (Niger, Nigeria, and Chad) and the border regions between Burkina Faso, Mali, and Niger have acute malnutrition rates that are higher than 10% worldwide. One of the root causes of acute malnutrition in children under the age of five, pregnant women, and nursing mothers throughout the region is conflict. Other contributing factors include population displacement, limited access to basic social services, including health care, education, water, hygiene, and sanitation, and expensive nutritious diets.

“The latest data indicates continuing unacceptably high levels of severe wasting for children in many countries in West and Central Africa, leaving a devastating impact on the region’s future,’’ said Marie-Pierre Poirier, UNICEF Regional Director for West and Central Africa.

“We need to scale up treatment and put much more attention on preventing child malnutrition through a multi-sectoral approach to reach every child,” Poirier added.

The three UN agencies and their partners pledge to combat this unprecedented food and nutrition crisis by utilising a strong food systems approach that includes numerous integrated programmes that provide food, nutrition, health, water, hygiene, and sanitation responses that are aimed at children, women, and other vulnerable groups.

FAO, UNICEF, and WFP will intensify and broaden their ongoing assistance to national social protection systems so that they are able to respond to shocks and take into account the nutritional needs of infants, young children, adolescents, pregnant women, and nursing mothers. The three UN agencies will also scale up their medium to longer term solutions aiming to strengthen the resilience of crisis-affected communities, while promoting peacebuilding and peaceful coexistence. These solutions will build on existing systems at local, national, and regional levels, and with full participation of local communities.

Through cash-based transfers and supplementary services, a joint social protection programme run by UNICEF and WFP has been supporting 1.8 million people in Mali, Mauritania, and Niger. Additionally, both organisations assist governments in enhancing their social protection frameworks, including social registries, national policies, and connections to early warning systems. In Burkina Faso, FAO supports 620,000 people in order to increase their agricultural production capacity and safeguard their way of life. Through cash-based transfers and supplementary services that are directed at 408,000 people in the nation, FAO also supports the social protection system.

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