Rémi Dourlot (Interview)

In early June, ECC editors interviewed Rémi Dourlot from the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (UN-OCHA) for West and Central Africa, based in Dakar, Senegal, on the Sahel food crisis.

The Sahel is characterized by long-standing chronic food insecurity and malnutrition, poverty and extreme vulnerability to droughts. After the drought and a resulting decrease in harvests in 2011, a deteriorating food crisis is looming over the region – and already affecting livelihoods.

ECC: Dear Rémi Dourlot, could you please briefly explain why the situation in the Sahel is so dire and what is different to previous food crises in the region, such as the one in 2010?

Rémi Dourlot (RD): There are currently several “layers” of crises in the Sahel region. Most of the countries here suffer from chronic vulnerabilities and are at the very bottom of the UNDP Human Development Index. This is related to governance, desertification linked to poor agricultural management or climate change, rapid demography, etc.

A second layer is last year’s drought, which has resulted in an insufficient harvest - only two years after the previous drought and in a context that did not allow households to rebuild their assets after the 2010 crisis. The loss of remittances from migrant workers forced to return from Côte d’Ivoire and Libya contributed to this inability to rebuild assets.

On top of this came the Mali conflict, which has affected not only Malian, but also host communities in the neighbouring countries where dozens of thousands of refugees have arrived. Refugees have settled in those areas which are among the most affected by the drought, putting additional stress on local host communities who have to share their meager resources, including water and depleted pastures for cattle.

However, except for Mali itself, the impact of the Malian conflict remains limited in scope compared to the impact of the food crisis. For example, in Niger, the number of people affected by the drought is about 6.4 million while the number of registered refugees is less than 42,000. Even if one has to add the host populations impacted by the refugees’ arrival, it is still a small percentage of the total population affected by the food crisis.

ECC: What scope is there for assistance, and what actions are you taking to support livelihoods in the region? What steps can be taken to improve long-term food security, and how can climate change be factored into the response?

RD: The response came early and a Sahel Strategy was issued by mid-December 2011. However, the crisis has deepened and the need for assistance has risen. The conflict in Mali has contributed to this. OCHA is promoting a kind of emergency relief that is not limited to emergency life-saving activities but can also help strengthen household resilience. The idea is to bridge the gap between emergency assistance and longer-term development. Such an approach includes setting up nutrition centres and food production initiatives that empower women to support their families, or community structures where women can learn how to identify early signs of malnutrition and how to better feed their children. A lot can also be done in the field of water conservation and management. The exact role of climate change is difficult to assess – as humanitarians we do not have the expertise for that - but from observing the last 30 years it seems clear that the cycle of droughts in the Sahel region is accelerating.

OCHA has allocated more than US$ 83 million from its Central Emergency Response Fund (CERF) to UN agencies and regional offices in the various Sahel countries to quick-start emergency projects and it has supported the preparations of the Consolidated Appeals in Niger, Chad, and, more recently, in Burkina Faso, Mauritania and Mali.

ECC: What are the funding needs and other capacities required for a sufficient response? Where do you currently see gaps and the biggest bottlenecks?

RD: As of 12 June 2012, the funding requirement for the Sahel region has reached US$ 1.5 billion, with just 39 per cent covered to-date. Funding levels vary heavily from one country to another: As of 12 June, 48 per cent of the funding requirements for Chad have been met as compared to only 4 per cent for the more recent funding appeal for Mauritania. There are also differences between sectors. Agriculture is generally very much under-funded. This is a serious problem as in some regions the rainy season is about to start and FAO does not have enough money to buy seeds for local peasants.

ECC: Thank you very much for this interview.

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