Food crisis in the Sahel in 2012: a Somali déjà vu?

23 April 2012 | Article

To avoid impending food crises in East Africa, policy makers should act now to ease the cross-border movement of pastoralists, says Pablo Manzano, Global Coordinator of the World Initiative for Sustainable Pastoralism.

Pastoralism is a very adaptable source of livelihood in areas that have highly variable and unpredictable natural resources. Pastoralists are able to cope with climatic variations by moving according to peak plant productivity. This movement is at times across national borders. Policy makers worldwide can help ensure the success of mobility by strengthening regional agreements. The lack of adequate measures to secure transhumant routes for movement continues to generate food crises. To avoid a crisis similar to that which took place in Somalia in 2011 or in West Africa in 2009, state authorities, pastoralists and other policy makers need to come together and establish regional frameworks that ease cross-border movements for pastoral communities.

Pastoralism has proven to be economically and environmentally sustainable but despite some efforts to develop this sector, governments still tend to regard pastoralism as backward, destructive and non-viable. Many pastoral areas are characterized by low and variable rainfall patterns and mobility allows for access to fodder and water where it exists during lean periods.

Pastoral mobility is critical for trade, local livelihoods and for coping with climatic changes. The success of mobility relies heavily on security and governments’ goodwill to allow movements. Regional networks and organizations are widespread across the world and provide a framework to agree on regulations that make cross-border pastoralism possible.

In East Africa, transboundary movements are either non-existent or not well developed, unlike in West Africa. Bodies such as the African Union, with the approval of its “Policy Framework for Pastoralism in Africa” or ECOWAS (Economic Community of West African States) and other bodies in the West African region have proven to be effective forums from which other regional bodies such as the East African Community, IGAD (the Intergovernmental Authority on Development) or the Arab League could take example.

According to the World Initiative for Sustainable Pastoralism (WISP), an IUCN programme for knowledge sharing and policy advocacy on pastoralism, the severe food crisis experienced in the Horn of Africa in 2011 was predicted as early as November 2010 and would have been averted had trans-boundary movements been supported and adopted as an adaptation strategy.

Events such as the recent Al-Shabab export ban of pastoralist products in Somalia weaken market integration and further contribute to food insecurity. In order to strengthen regional processes in East Africa, a workshop was held in Arusha in October 2011 by WISP and other stakeholders, presenting the conclusions of the publication “Natural Resource Management and Biodiversity Conservation in the Drylands of Eastern and Central Africa”. This aimed to highlight the mutual benefits of pastoralism and biodiversity conservation as well as recommending policies and investment options in support of these synergies. The conclusions have been further delivered to national delegates of a recent African Union Interafrican Bureau for Animal Resources (AU-IBAR) conference in Arusha on pastoralism, highlighting the extraordinary role that regional bodies such as the East African Community, IGAD or the Common Market for Eastern and Southern Africa (COMESA) can have in shaping an ecosystem-scale pastoralist management.

In October 2011, Réseau Billital Maroobé (RBM), a network of pastoralists in the Sahel region, in partnership with the Liptako-Gourma Authority (ALG), held a workshop in Burkina Faso to study the possibility of harmonization of legal texts that regulate transhumance in the region. RBM issued an alarm call to attract attention to the unprecedented crisis as a result of drought that would affect the Sahel region as it did in 2009, a crisis that has also been forecast by different experts as well as NGOs such as Oxfam. A regional consultation meeting on food security and nutrition in the Sahel and West Africa organized by FAO, the World Food Programme and the Famine Early Warning Systems Network (FEWS NET), among others, gave joint opinions on the food and nutrition situation in the Sahel while noting that the ongoing social and political turmoil in the region may exert pressure on regional markets.

According to RBM, the rainy season in 2011 started early but was quickly characterized by poor rainfall throughout the region. This led to long periods of drought in Niger, Northern Mali and Burkina Faso, resulting in a significant decrease in forage production and drying up of water from ponds and backwaters used by animals. RBM predicts a significant influx of livestock from neighbouring countries into Benin, partly because of the presence of pasture and water, and also by the ease of negotiating social agreements.

In Niger for example, pastoralists are forced to migrate further to Nigeria, Burkina-Faso and Benin. The movement this season will be in jeopardy due to the conflicts being experienced in the North Eastern side of Nigeria due to constant attacks by Boko Haram. The main consequence is that pastoralists who usually move into Nigeria will be locked in their respective countries without access to water and grazing land during the dry season. This may lead to loss of livestock and consequently loss of incomes to families as well as lower GDP contributions to respective countries. This situation requires early responses to emergency situations while strengthening prevention programmes and development, taking into account the specifics of each country to benefit the most vulnerable groups.

The Tuareg 2012 rebellion, which has already sparked a crisis in Mali, further complicates migration in the Sahel. TheInternational Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) puts figures at 72,000 people internally displaced, 44,000 fleeing to Mauritania and Burkina Faso and a further 23,000 fleeing into Niger. Moreover, the rebellion has blocked usual corridors used by pastoralist herders. This is in the face of a food crisis which is now emerging across the Sahel estimated to be affecting some 13 million people.

Decision makers should not wait for catastrophic events to unfold, as they did in 2009/2010 as RBM noted in a recent study. The looming crisis is predictable and avoidable. Governments need to act on and improve legislation to enable more flexible livestock movements. Legislation should enable pastoralists to move with their herds to neighbouring countries without having to do preliminary surveys to identify host communities. Establishment of these laws should be done in collaboration with pastoralists themselves to prevent the perpetration of inappropriate policies.