Starvation in the Sahel: Food Security in Africa

Harvard International Review, Summer 2012 | Go to article overview

Starvation in the Sahel: Food Security in Africa


Food security, defined by the World Food Summit of'1996 as "when all people at all times have access to sufficient, safe, nutritious food to maintain a healthy and active life," is one of the most important issues ol the twenty-first century. Approximately two billion people are intermittently food insecure due to poverty, and 850 million are chronically hungry. The Sahel region of Africa is particularly food insecure for a variety of geographic, demographic, and economic reasons that have resulted in food shortages and famines affecting millions of people and contributed to conflicts in Sudan and Somalia. Stretching from the Atlantic Ocean to the Horn of Africa, the Sahel bridges the gap between the Sahara desert and the southern savanna. Approximately 50 million people live in the Sahel region, which includes parts of Senegal, Mauritania, Mali, Burkina Fa so, Niger, Nigeria, Chad, Sudan, Ethiopia, Eritrea, Djibouti, and Somalia. The Sahel has had periodic food shortages and famines following droughts throughout recorded history, the most recent of which occurred in the summer of 2010 when temperatures rose above 120 degrees Fahrenheit in some regions. Seven million people, primarily in Niger and Chad, faced severe food shortages. Although relief agencies have become more effective at anticipating potential famines and responding to existing crises, food security issues in the Sahel have been consistently worsening for the past few decades and show little sign of improving, with some experts predicting another food shortage as early as 2012.

The SaheTs inconsistent climate has played a significant role in worsening its food security problems. Its intermittent droughts are made more devastating by the fact that they often follow wet periods. During the lush years of a wet period, populations grow and agriculture must expand further into the border region between the Sahel and the desert, which has become increasingly arable. When the rains stop, these borderland crops quickly fail, and the now larger population is more vulnerable to food shortages. This phenomenon has been observed several times throughout the twentieth century but almost certainly has been occurring for much longer. Increasing populations in the Sahel, and the resulting over-farming and overgrazing, have also led to desertification in the region. Chad's population, for example, grew by three million people in the first decade of the twenty-first century, and food supplies have had a hard time keeping up with the increase. A general shift: from a nomadic to a sedentary lifestyle all over the Sahel has also contributed to desertification, as people who have settled in one area tend to have a more deleterious effect on their environment than nomads. The conflict in the Darfur region of Sudan has exacerbated desertification as well, as the two hundred and fifty thousand refugees who fled into eastern Chad have put additional strain on the environment as they gather vegetation for firewood, in the past few years, scientists have also gathered more and more evidence that the increase in greenhouse gases in the atmosphere has been a contributing factor to the Sahel droughts of the late twentieth century. …

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