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Red Cross warns: 60 million people at risk of acute hunger in sub-Saharan Africa as El Niño strengthens

An estimated 60 million people across sub-Saharan Africa, a population roughly equal to the size of the United Kingdom, do not have enough to eat this year and indications are strong that the food production situation is set to further deteriorate. The International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC) is warning that increased support is needed now to alleviate hunger, and to prepare for worsening conditions for farmers.

“The regularity with which we see food insecurity in Africa has left many people apathetic. But the crisis currently facing millions of families is not inevitable and should not be acceptable,” said Michael Charles, IFRC acting regional representative in southern Africa. “There are many things that we can do to stop this food crisis in its tracks and alleviate the impact on vulnerable people, but we need international support to make this happen.”

A series of climatic shocks in 2014 and 2015 decimated harvests, leaving many people dependent on food aid to survive. Floods and drought in southern Africa resulted in significant declines in maize production, the regional staple. Erratic rainfall, failed crops and violence in the Sahel and eastern Africa have compromised the livelihoods of many farming communities.

But the worst is yet to come. The El Niño climate phenomenon, characterized by a warming in the Pacific Ocean, is set to strengthen over the coming months and persist into 2016. When El Niño occurs, rainfall patterns shift, increasing the risk of extreme weather events. The Red Cross Red Crescent Climate Centre predicts a higher likelihood of flood conditions developing in equatorial Africa, and increased risk of drought in parts of southern Africa and the Sahel region.

“Many families are surviving on one meal a day made from leaves, which have very little nutritional value. Or, they are even going without food for days because of the erratic rainfall,” said Miriam Grove, IFRC operations manager, The Sahel. “These people need urgent assistance. If we can help them now, we can maintain their nutritional status and give them the tools and seeds necessary to survive worsening conditions next year.”

To meet the immediate needs of 205,000 of the most vulnerable, IFRC has launched six emergency appeals across six countries: Gambia, Mauritania, Malawi, Namibia, Senegal, and Zimbabwe. Totalling almost 8 million Swiss francs, the appeals combine immediate food relief with disaster preparedness initiatives that will equip communities to cope with further climatic shocks. Across the continent, the Red Cross Red Crescent is also investing in long-term food security programmes for millions of people that help build resilience to climatic shocks.

Without increased support, the prospect for many affected people is bleak. Malnutrition is already high in sub-Saharan Africa. UNICEF reports that 37 per cent of children in the region are stunted, which is indicative of long-term nutritional problems. Further decreases in the availability of nutritious food may be life-threatening for children, people living with HIV, and other vulnerable groups.

“The economic strain of food insecurity on families also leads people to adopt negative coping mechanisms to feed themselves,” added Charles. “Parents pull their children from school and make them work. Women trade for sex, putting themselves at risk of HIV. Farmers sell their livestock, leaving them without the animals needed to work their land. Addressing the food crisis now, and ensuring sustainable funding for longer-term food security programmes, will prevent people from falling into deeper cycles of vulnerability. This is our window of opportunity to act.”


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