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Gambia calls for help

by Nfamara Jawneh

Opinion

As D+C/E+Z went to press, soldiers took power in a coup in Mali, arguing the government was  unable to handle unrest in the country’s north, where tensions have been exacerbated by drought

As D+C/E+Z went to press, soldiers took power in a coup in Mali, arguing the government was unable to handle unrest in the country’s north, where tensions have been exacerbated by drought

The government of Gambia has declared that 70 % of crops have failed in the country in the past farming season and that more than 1 million Gambians are in need. The drought that has caused the problems, however, is affecting other countries in the region too. By Nfamara Jawneh

In mid-March, Gambia’s Ministry of Agriculture said the country urgently needs $ 23 million to provide food relief, seeds and fertiliser. It also stated that the money required to address the crisis is well beyond the national capability and that over 1 million of 1.7 million Gambians are in need of food aid.

“The post-harvest assessment of the 2011 farming season, which was characterised by below normal and poorly distrib­uted rainfall, indicated a reduction in total crop production of more than 70 %,” the Ministry’s statement reads. Due to “poor harvests of rice, groundnuts, millets, maize and sorghum” villages now only have food supplies for two months, down from the usual four to six. High prices for food on world markets compound the problem.

No government likes to appeal for outside help. Doing so, after all, reveals that a sovereign nation is unable to solve its problems on its own. Obviously, however, Gambia’s government is not responsible for the weather. Experts agree that the ­crisis is climate induced, and that it is part of a larger drought scenario which is ­currently hitting farmers and vulnerable households throughout the Sahel region for the third time in a decade. Aid agencies warn that some 9 million people in west and central Africa are facing a food crisis this year.

In some countries, violence is compounding the problems. According to the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), some 60,000 people were internally displaced due to conflict in northern Mali in mid-March, while up to 70,000 had fled across borders into neighbouring countries. The OCHA ex­plicitly thanked Niger, Mauritania and Burkina Faso for keeping borders open to people fleeing the violence, even as re­f­ugees arrived in areas were local people were suffering need themselves.

Extreme weather is becoming ever more frequent all over the world. Scientists agree that climate change is human made. The African countries affected by severe drought, however, have hardly contributed to greenhouse gas emissions.

In Gambia, the government is now mobilising its emergency funds for immediate action. It considers food and nutrition security threatened. Agriculture is the largest contributor to GDP, employing over 70 % of the population. Gambia relies on this sector for foreign exchange, employment and food. Most farmers are subsistence farmers. Most do not blame the government for the crisis, they see the problem as a natural disaster.

The government has as a matter of fact been promoting agricultural development recently. In the past two years, the Gambia Emergency Agricultural Production Project (GEAPP), which is run by the government and supported by donors including the European Union and the World Bank, provided inputs to farms. But such inputs become worthless when fields remain dry.

Musa Jawneh, the president of the umbrella organisation Gambia National Farmers Platform, supports the government’s appeal to the international community. He says the country urgently needs food aid, seeds, fertilisers and farming equipments since it must feed the needy and prepare for the cropping season. He wants the government and development partners to help farmers to explore the potentials of diversifying agriculture, especially in areas like gardening, animal husbandry and cattle rearing.

In the short run, the international community must help Gambia. Poor farmers in particular need food aid as soon as possible. In the long run, the national economy must be developed in a way that will make the country resilient to climate change.

The same, of course, is true of other countries of the region as well. As the OHCA states for good reason, a “coherent approach to drought resilience is needed” because it is necessary to rise to the double challenges of disaster relief and long-term development.