GENEVA - The latest United Nations analysis of food security in the Sahel and Western African countries finds a record 38 million people will face severe food shortages next year. It warns that many people may not survive without prompt and generous international humanitarian assistance.
Acute hunger will hit the most vulnerable people during next year's lean season. This is the period when food stocks are at their lowest and millions of people will not have enough food to eat.
The lean season normally occurs in the West and Central African region between June and August. But World Food Program Senior Research Officer for the region, Ollo Sib, says signs indicate next year's lean season will begin as early as March.
"Given that the food stocks are very low...For livestock there is not enough pasture. For livestock we anticipate an earlier lean season, especially for the pastoralists in the region...and this will push people to adopt certain strategies," Sib says.
Sib notes many people already are feeling the pinch of hunger and are resorting to extreme coping strategies. These include selling livestock and other assets to have enough money to put food on the table.
The WFP official says climate and conflict remain two major drivers of the poor harvest and poor production in the Sahel. He notes the past few years have been exceptionally dry in the Sahel and massive drought has affected millions of people from West Africa.
He adds widespread conflict in the region has discouraged farmers from planting their crops and pastoralists from moving their livestock freely in search of grazing land. He says satellite imagery shows 35 percent of the villages have suffered severe crop losses due to conflict and massive displacement.
"We are talking about five to seven million people overall displaced. We are talking about 13 million people affected by conflict in the region and most of them are farmers, most of them are pastoralists, and this conflict is pushing them away from their livelihoods system and their capacity to produce."
The United Nations says early action is needed to ward off the worst. It is calling on the international community to step up now before the lean season sets in. UN officials say early and adequate investment is needed to prepare for next year's agricultural season. They say the provision of food aid is urgently needed to prevent malnutrition from soaring.