Satellite data shows hunger looming in Senegal, Mauritania

Experts warn barren pastures in the two West African states threaten livestock herding, a key pillar of food security.

    Competition between farmers and herders over scarce resources is one of the main sources of deadly conflict in <span>West Africa</span> [File: Rebecca Blackwell/AP]
    Competition between farmers and herders over scarce resources is one of the main sources of deadly conflict in <span>West Africa</span> [File: Rebecca Blackwell/AP]

    Hundreds of thousands of people in Senegal and Mauritania are at risk of going hungry in the coming year because not enough grass has grown to feed the region's cattle, analysts have said.

    Satellite maps show barren pastures across large swaths of the two West African countries, which means animals will die, robbing owners of their sole source of food and income.

    "Livestock herding is the key pillar of food security for the area," Alex Orenstein, a data scientist specialising on pastoralism in the Sahel, said on Friday.

    "Herders feel the pain first, but it touches everyone in the region soon enough," he said.

    A similar lack of pasture in 2017 left five million people needing food aid the subsequent year across six countries in West Africa's Sahel region, a grassy zone below the Sahara Desert.

    There are no estimates yet of the number of people who could be affected by the current situation, but in some areas, it looks worse than 2017, said Zakari Saley Bana, a disaster risk reduction adviser for the charity Action Against Hunger (ACF).

    About 350,000 families depend on cattle herding in Senegal, according to a pastoralists' association.

    "The situation is very worrisome," Saley Bana said, estimating that aid agencies will need to step up assistance.

    Late rains

    The Sahel has a rainy season from July to September, after which herds must survive on whatever grass has grown until the next rainy season. This year, the rain did not start until late August.

    Maps of vegetation growth created by ACF show severe deficits stretching across the Sahel to Chad, but most widespread in northern Senegal and southern Mauritania.

    Starvation usually comes in May or June the year after, when people have gone the longest time without rain.

    So, while poor rains in 2017 caused a hunger crisis last year, the effects of the current deficit may only be felt in 2020.

    A true picture will not be clear until the end of the rainy season, but the outlook is unlikely to improve, said Orenstein.

    Heavy rains now are likely to cause flooding rather than encourage plant growth, he said.

    There is also a risk of conflict as herders migrate into farming areas in search of fodder, said Saley Bana.

    Competition between farmers and herders over scarce resources is one of the main sources of deadly conflict in West Africa, leading to massacres this year in Mali and killing more people than the Boko Haram armed group in Nigeria.

    SOURCE: Reuters news agency