While the world’s attention is turned to the coronavirus outbreak, three UN agencies warned on Tuesday about another crisis that has been looming in the background: an alarming hunger spike in Burkina Faso, Mali and Niger that could put 14.4 million people at risk of food insecurity in West Africa this year. The last time it was that bad was eight years ago, warned the WFP, the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) and the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF).

“We are seeing a staggering rise in hunger in the central Sahel,” Chris Nikoi, the World Food Programme’s (WFP) regional director in West and Central Africa, said in a press release. “The number of food insecure people has doubled after harvest time, when it should have dropped. Unless we act now, a whole generation are at risk.”

According to the UN, the number of people facing a critical lack of food in Burkina Faso, Mali and Niger – which constitute the Central Sahel – spiked over the last year due to violence and climate change that have threatened people’s already fragile livelihoods and forced them to migrate. In Burkina Faso, for example, where the situation is especially troubling, the number of internally displaced people increased six-fold from January to December 2019, from 90,000 to more than half a million, not to mention about 25,000 who have fled to other countries.

Right now, 3.3 million people are in need of immediate assistance in the Central Sahel, the three agencies reported, and experts expect that number to rise to 4.8 million from June to August, the lean season, if the situation continues to deteriorate at the same pace and the international community fails to provide urgent assistance.

Of particular concern is the rapidly escalating instability, a result of armed attacks by insurgents and community conflicts. Last month, the BBC described conflict in the region as “slipping out of control,” as attacks on civilians and military targets are “occurring with increasing regularity.” Mohamed Ibn Chambas, the Head of the UN Office for West Africa and the Sahel, also told the UN Security Council last month that there were more than 4,000 reported terrorist-attack casualties just in 2019 in Burkina Faso, Mali and Niger, compared to 770 in 2016.

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Displacement and violence in the Central Sahel

These figures are the highest since 2012, when northern Mali fell to jihadist groups and separatist Tuareg rebels. In 2013, the French successfully launched an operation to halt the rebels, but they have since regrouped and expanded into Burkina Faso, Niger and Ivory Coast, carrying out what has been described as “ethnic cleansing.” Chambas told the Security Council that the number of deaths in Burkina Faso from terrorist attacks has grown from about 80 in 2016 to more than 1,800 last year.

“Most significantly,” Chambas said, “the geographic focus of terrorist attacks has shifted eastwards from Mali to Burkina Faso and is increasingly threatening West African coastal States.”

As the violence spreads, so does the humanitarian crisis. And the UN is warning that the effects could be long-term, because the “increasing vulnerability of rural populations, insecurity and conflict over resources are disrupting social cohesion among communities,” and social cohesion is critical for peace. That’s why the agencies are calling not only for immediate assistance for urgent needs, like food, but also development-related investments in rural livelihoods and social services.

“Unless we address these crises from their roots, millions of vulnerable [farmers and herders] will continue requiring urgent assistance each year, as it was in 2019 and as it will be in 2020,” said Robert Guei, the FAO’s sub-regional coordinator for West Africa.

In 2018, the International Rescue Committee and the Overseas Development Institute published a report which found that up to 82 percent of fragile and conflict-affected states are off-track to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals. In the Central Sahel, the conflicts are certainly inhibiting development, as millions of people are going hungry, families are being forced to abandon their livelihoods and hundreds of thousands of children are being deprived of education and place in vulnerable situations for exploitation.

“Children and young people continue to pay the highest price for a crisis not of their making,” said UNICEF’s regional director, Marie-Pierre Poirier. “We need to act now…to avert a tragedy.

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