Africa's rural poor face 'perfect storm'

Posted: 18 January 2008

Africa's rural poor are facing a "perfect storm" of rising food prices, climate change and population growth, the head of the United Nations World Food Programme (WFP) warns. She urged the international community to take more concerted action to help the continent's most vulnerable people.

After a recent visit to Senegal and Mali, WFP Executive Director Josette Sheeran told reporters in Dakar that time was running out to build resilience among the millions of rural Africans who often have to go hungry.

WFP operations in West Africa planned from last October to June 2008 remain under-funded by as much as $168 million overall.

In Africa, both consumption and population will continue to grow for many decades.
In Africa, both consumption and population will continue to grow for many decades.
In Africa, both consumption and population will continue to grow for many decades. Photo © Ron Gilling/Panos Pictures
"I have seen in West Africa what havoc could be caused by the triple threat of climate change, rising food prices and population growth," she said.

"But I have also seen that there are solutions to help people adapt before it is too late. We must help people to protect themselves and their families. It's a large order, but with the help of the international community we can do it - we must do it."

Spreading desert

The WFP chief said West Africa faces a particularly difficult challenge against the elements as the Sahara Desert creeps further and further south each year, consuming what was once arable land or pastures.

Global commodity prices are also soaring, driven in part by the rising cost of fuels, which means the prices of foodstaples have surged in poor African countries, placing them out of reach of many consumers.

In one example, Mauritania, Sheeran said the impact of the higher international prices has led to tensions that could turn into a food crisis this year unless more funds are pledged by donors.

"High world prices for grains have made our operations more challenging than ever. The overall cost of WFP reaching a hungry person has gone up by 50 per cent in the last five years."

Silent emergency

An estimated 1.5 million children under the age of five in the Sahel region are now classified as acutely malnourished, the highest proportion of any region worldwide. This 'silent emergency' kills more than 300,000 children every year and stunts the growth of those who survive.

Ms. Sheeran noted that WFP is working with non-governmental organisations (NGOs) to help local communities adapt to climate change, such as by constructing small dams, completing irrigation projects and contribution to schemes that reduce soil erosion or promote reforestation.

But she also observed that continued population growth, combined with low school enrolment rates, is adding to the squeeze on the rural poor across Africa.

Source: Josette Sheeran visited West Africa in November last year. This report is from the UN News Service