Today, there will be food on every table, but long-term solutions are needed

Published: 3 September 2012 14:25 CET

By Viivi Berghem, Finnish Red Cross, in Senegal

Drought does not always lead to disaster. It can become one if people fail to adjust their lives to match reality.

Asan Sou stands on the dusty road in the village of Thieppe with the sun beating down on his head. He waits for a Red Cross sack of rice. The years since 2010 have been tough and this year he has managed to get only a fifth of the normal harvest.

He say providing all his family needs has become more and more difficult as the drought progressed. “I have been forced to sell almost everything I used to own. Before all this started I had 200 cows. Only five are left now,” he says. “I have sold my tools, too.”

Asan has four wives and 27 children. Last time they saw rice on the table was a year ago. For months now they have had one small meal per day, and a single sack of rice is going to make a real difference. “This sack of rice is a blessing. We now have fifty grams of uncooked rice for each of us for a whole month.”

Asan’s eldest sons are working in Dakar. Meager wages and odd jobs combined with life in the slummy outskirts of the city are light-years away from the dreams of young men. What little money they have been able to send home has, however, sustained the family through the lean months.

The food security situation has been critical in Senegal since last December. The national Red Cross society says that as many as one million Senegalese are affected by the current crisis. It’s not just restricted to Thieppe. Dependency on livestock and farming are the main sources of livelihood all over the vast Sahel region.

For the third time in ten years, the region is threatened by a disaster following an extended drought. At its worst, the looming humanitarian crisis could affect the lives of 20 million people.

In addition to poverty, volatility in global commodity prices, regional conflicts and a budding refugee problem all play their part in the equation. And cycles of drought getting shorter meaning people have no time to recover from one bad harvest before the next is having an impact.

The day of the rice distribution by volunteers from the Senegalese Red Cross Society has finally dawned. It is being overseen by Abdullah Ege, who says dozens of volunteers have been in the area over the last month, assessing the needs of the community and assuring that the most vulnerable get what they need. “Today, there will be something to eat in every house in Thieppe.”

Muhammed Dja, village chief of Thieppe, says people from the village come to him seeking assistance, but he was often not able to help. “We need long-term development programs and lasting solutions to survive. We need things like irrigation systems. Selling what little you own, sending your children away to work or emergency aid cannot solve problems, only give some short-term respite,” he says.

People in Thieppe village have food for a month now. This year’s crop is growing in the village fields and everyone hopes that there will be a good harvest soon. If that happens, people can once again sustain themselves and emergency aid will have done its job and formed a bridge over the precipice of hunger. Asan Sou can keep his last five cows.