REPORTING FROM JOHANNESBURG, SOUTH AFRICA -- When humanitarian agencies began raising warning flags about Somalia’s famine more than a year ago, donors sat on their hands for months, a tardy response that the aid groups say cost tens of thousands of lives.
A similar emergency is unfolding in the arid Sahel region, affecting eight countries and around 10 million people across a stretch of Africa just south of the Sahara desert. This time, humanitarian agencies are determined to prevent a repeat of the famine in Somalia.
A recent survey by UNICEF forecast 1 million cases of severe malnutrition, with between 25% and 60% of those people likely to die without emergency assistance. The agency has plans to feed 1 million people in the Sahel -- most of them in the hardest-hit country, Niger -- but so far has raised funds to feed only half of them.
The failure of rains triggered a rise in food prices, so families in crisis cannot afford to buy. Meanwhile the fragile agricultural system, stressed by overgrazing, struggles to feed the rapidly growing populations in a region that has some of the highest birthrates on Earth.
Thousands of migrant workers who fled Libya and returned home because of persecution after last year's revolution in the North African nation have added to the pressure as families struggle to survive without the money that workers had sent home. Locust plagues in some areas complicated the crisis further.
“We want to deal with a million [acute malnutrition] cases to prevent as many deaths as possible,” said David Gressly, UNICEF’s West Africa director, speaking in an interview in Johannesburg on Thursday. “We need to look at this both in terms of the medium-term and long-term responses to turn this situation around.”
According to the recent survey, 390,000 cases of severe malnutrition are predicted in Niger, a country reeling from droughts in 2005 and 2010. The peak of the crisis is expected to hit in March.
“The cycles are getting closer together, and that’s a concern because households don’t have time to recover from the previous crisis,” Gressly said. “Mortality rates might be higher, simply because households have been under stress for so long.”
Even during years when there is no drought, about 300,000 children suffer severe malnutrition across the Sahel, according to UNICEF.
The other countries affected are Chad, Mali, Mauritania, northern Nigeria, Senegal, Cameroon and Burkino Faso.
Gressly said the aim is to prevent the situation from deteriorating into a famine, with much higher mortality rates, as happened in Somalia.
“The difference is we are acting much more quickly this time," he said. "I think everyone has learned from the Horn of Africa and are taking the early indicators much more seriously.
“We all -- humanitarian agencies and the international community -- can act on time and save a lot of lives. That’s the most important lesson that came out of the Horn of Africa.”
Gressly said the situation was complicated by the decline of security in the Sahel and particularly in northern Nigeria, where the Islamic rebel group Boko Haram is battling the nation's government. Last year the guerrillas attacked the United Nations compound in the capital, Abuja, killing about two dozen people. Last week they unleashed coordinated bombings at police stations and other government offices in the northern city of Kano, killing about 185.
After the failure to prevent the Somalia famine, a Jan. 18 report by Oxfam and Save the Children says international donors ignored repeated early warnings. It calls on international donors to scale up their emergency responses more quickly when faced with warnings of a hunger emergency.
“In the Horn of Africa, there were indications that a crisis was coming from as early as August 2010," the report says. "In November 2010, these warnings were repeated and they became more strident in early 2011. Some actors did respond, but full scale-up only really happened after the rains had failed for a second successive time. By this time, in some places people were already dying.”
“Waiting for a situation to reach crisis point before responding is the wrong way to address chronic vulnerability and recurrent drought in places like the Horn of Africa," the report says. "Instead, the international community must change how it operates to meet the challenge of responding to recurrent crises in regions such as this.”
Photo: A mother holds her baby as they line up Thursday to receive a meal at a food distribution center for those displaced by last year's famine or conflict in Somalia. UNICEF warns that famine and malnutrition could now devastate countries across Africa's Sahel region. Credit: Ben Curtis / Associated Press.