Mauritania’s humanitarian crisis requires an innovative approach
Innovation is key when you live in a country where the advancement of desert sands is beginning to encroach on homes and livelihoods, and drought is causing what the United Nations has referred to as “a horrendous food crisis”.
Together with Burkina Faso, Chad, Mali and Niger, Mauritania is a nation situated in the Sahel — a vast semi-arid region of Africa that separates the Sahara Desert to the north and the tropical savannas of the south.
In February, after a visit to the region, David Beasley, the World Food Programme (WFP) Executive Director, reported that “an absolute crisis is unfolding before our eyes.”
Beasley added that he had visited families who “had been through more than you could possibly imagine” — including being chased from their homes by extremist groups, starved by drought-related food shortages, and tried by the economic effects from COVID-19. In essence, since the start of the pandemic, the number of people facing starvation has risen steadily from 3.6 to 10.5 million — a situation that will soon surpass anything that governments and aid agencies have ever had to deal with.
As a result of this drought, Mauritania is facing in a crisis — a food-security disaster. A recent USAID map depicts 660 000 people in the country as facing acute food insecurity at crisis levels or worse. Most northern and southern stretches of the country are shaded in orange — a crisis state, while most central and western areas are shaded in yellow — a stressed state, just before crisis. Additionally, an inset on the map reveals that as of 25 January 2022, the vast majority of the country has been receiving rainfall that is considered alarmingly low.
Environmental experts believe that although Africa contributes the least of any continent towards global warming, its residents are bearing the brunt of climate change in the form of extreme weather events.
The Great Green Wall initiative, developed as a way to combat desertification in the Sahel region, stands out as one clever way that the continent has responded to protect the land. By planting a wall of trees, the project helps the residents of Mauritania fight the encroaching sands to protect their farmlands. This wall protects the palm tree groves from the effects of wind. “We surround the palm trees with a small moat, fill this with water and aim to protect it with blankets,” one resident of the area explained. “This allows the palm trees to survive.”
Marieme Bekaye, Minister of Environment and Sustainable Development for Mauritania, told Africa News that the Great Green Wall is “an integrated rural development programme, combining the preservation of the environment and the setting up of rural development poles. These should improve the living conditions of rural populations, especially the most vulnerable,” she advised.
Authorities have also provided solar water pumps in the groves to help vulnerable communities as drought, food insecurity, agricultural challenges and a hostile environment appear to be caving in on them. If projections are correct, it is expected that at least 100 million hectares of drought-degraded land will be restored by 2030.
In the interim, the people of Mauritania have to deal with the effects of the drought as, “harvests have been ruined, livestock are dying and hunger is growing”, WFP Regional Director for Eastern Africa, Michael Dunford, told media. “Water and grazing land is in short supply, and forecasts of below-average rainfall in the coming months only threaten more misery,” he added.
Fortunately, food aid is already being distributed across this incredibly arid region where malnutrition rates are high, and millions of people across the affected nations are at risk of severe hunger. More than US$300 million will be needed to rectify the crisis in the months that lie ahead, and resilience-building schemes such as the Great Green Wall will be necessary to make rural communities increasingly resilient.
This crisis underscores the importance of instruments such as the African Risk Capacity (ARC) solution that provides parametric insurance to governments. In the event of such climate-induced natural disasters, ARC avails resources to participating member states to facilitate response and enable recovery efforts.
In the past, Mauritania has benefited from such financing as part of its insurance payout. As alluded to by the WFP, early action from the insurer “not only reduces the prevalence of food insecurity but also has a longer-term effect on household food security: some households … [are able to] better prepare for the next lean season”.
Lesley Ndlovu, CEO of ARC Limited, notes the need for countries to plan for exposures and build resilience. “At the African Risk Capacity, we work with countries to prepare them for the risk exposure they have and help them prepare for how to respond, including helping them to establish a rainy-day fund.
“We also partner with institutions like the World Food Programme to provide emergency and resilience-building support to populations vulnerable to the impacts of climate-change-induced disasters. It is clear that we need broader collaborations to solve the problem that our continent faces. The problem is so big that all of us have a role to play.”
The ARC comprises ARC Agency, a specialised agency of the AU, and ARC Ltd, the financial affiliate of the Group. Together, the organisation supports AU member states to plan, prepare and respond to the negative effects of climate change.