What can be done in the drought-stricken Sahel?

The UN cannot stop drought or conflict, but it can help to restore the self-sufficiency and dignity of refugees.

The remains of a goat lie in the sand in
At least one million children are at risk of dying of malnutrition in parts of West Africa's Sahel region [AFP]

Niamey, Niger – Menghaize is a place that won’t ever feature in any tourist itinerary. You would never go there out of choice, and you might never even have heard of it, if circumstances had not conspired to put it on the map as the latest global humanitarian hotspot.

Today, this dusty outpost in the parched Sahel region of West Africa is a nexus of misery for some 3,000 people who have fled conflict in Mali only to find themselves in neighbouring Niger, where drought and rising food prices are causing widespread hunger.

A deadly equation of conflict, combined with displacement and drought, has wreaked havoc for vast numbers of people living on the margins of survival in Africa. Last year it was the Horn of Africa. This year it is the Sahel. In years past, it has been communities living in Sudan, southern Africa and elsewhere that have suffered similar ordeals. There is a risk in ignoring such situations or allowing them to fester. The political and humanitarian complexities of the Sahel already touch many countries, and a prolonged crisis here could have far wider implications, for security and otherwise.

When we visited Menghaize in May, we spoke to farming families who had been forced from their villages across the border in Mali. They are people who crave only the opportunity to live a settled life – to provide for their children and loved ones, till the soil, sell produce in local markets, attend school, and build a better future.

In-depth coverage of the looming humanitarian crisis

It is not asking a lot, but in the context of the Sahel this year, the chances of millions of people achieving these modest goals are rapidly diminishing. For those we met in the refugee camp at Menghaize, an uncertain future lies ahead.

They cannot return to their home villages in Mali, and they now rely on whatever assistance we – working with the local authorities and local communities – can provide. Under normal circumstances, Niger, the host government of these Malian refugees, might be expected to provide shelter, food and medicine. But these are not normal circumstances, and Niger has its own challenges, including feeding its people, as it faces its third devastating drought in less than a decade.

It is, of course, when things go wrong that people turn to the United Nations. This is why the World Food Programme (WFP) and the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) are today working towards addressing the nutritional and shelter needs of more than half a million people – around 300,000 displaced from their homes inside Mali, and a further 255,000 seeking refuge in Mauritania, Burkina Faso and Niger.

The families we met in Menghaize were living in temporary shelters fashioned from bent wooden branches, plastic sheeting and dried grass. They now depend on monthly food rations for their survival. Before help arrived, many were living on leaves and berries. It is difficult to say when, or whether, they might ever return to their homes in Mali.

Saving lives in emergencies is at the core of the work of the WFP and UNHCR. Alongside the refugee crisis in the Sahel, WFP aims to feed more than 9 million people across the region this year, responding to the nutritional needs of communities reeling from the impact of successive droughts, and struggling to afford the high cost of what little food is available to feed their families.

We cannot stop drought, nor as humanitarian agencies can we halt man-made conflict, but alongside our life-saving work with the refugees at Menghaize camp, we are mindful of the need to lay the groundwork to bolster the ability of these communities and others in the Sahel region to help themselves. Building resilience through programmes that are designed to cushion them from the blows of future natural disasters is a vital investment, and the returns can be dramatic if we get it right.

Find out more about how the crisis is affecting more
than 15 million people across eight countries of the region

The strength and resourcefulness of the families we met during our recent visit to Niger showed that providing proper protection for the displaced and ending hunger are problems we can solve – and that collaboration is key. The tools to achieve this are at hand, and working alongside national governments, UN agencies, non-governmental organisations, the private sector and civil society, we have the opportunity to make life-changing and cost-effective interventions that will change the landscape in the Sahel region from vulnerability to hope.

For now, the needs of those in Menghaize camp and others like it in Niger, Burkina Faso and Mauritania, are more immediate. We will strive to save them, and others who may be forced to flee across the border in the weeks and months to come. But alongside the food shortages and the lack of shelter that are so dramatically apparent in Menghaize, there is another precious commodity that is in desperately short supply right now: Dignity.

Dignity is something that we urgently need to restore to those who have been caught up in the drought and refugee crisis affecting the Sahel region. Working together in strategic partnership across sectors – uniting leaders in government with private-sector visionaries – we can meet the urgent humanitarian needs of the most vulnerable, and ensure that those who have the misfortune to find themselves in a place such as the Menghaize refugee camp can at least plan for a better future.

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, Antonio Guterres, and the World Food Programme Executive Director, Ertharin Cousin, visited Niger in early May on a fact-finding mission to assess the extent of the crisis caused by drought, conflict and refugee movement in the Sahel region of West Africa.