DAKAR, 3 February 2014 (IRIN) - Over 20 million people in the Sahel will need humanitarian assistance in 2014, up 8.7 million over the number of people in need 2013 estimates the UN, which launched an ambitious three-year Sahel strategy today.
Driving the surge in the numbers of people going hungry is a severe deterioration in people's access to affordable food in northern Nigeria, northern Cameroon and Senegal. Together, these countries represent over 40 percent of the overall food insecurity caseload, says the UN.
At five million, the number of malnourished children under age five remains more or less the same as in 2013.
Among the vulnerable are 1.6 million displaced people across the region, with communities fleeing the Central African Republic, northeastern Nigeria, Mali and Sudan, putting pressure on vulnerable populations in Burkina Faso, Cameroon, Chad and Niger.
"Life saving is still the first priority, without question," said the UN's Humanitarian Coordinator for the Sahel, Robert Piper. "But we need to be more ambitious in terms of the tasks we set ourselves, including going beyond saving lives."
The UN, which will re-issue annual funding asks over the coming three-year period, is calling for US$2 billion this year, up from the $1.7 billion requested last year.
"Twelve-month plans do not work in a region where the problems are so chronic. Everyone wants to see these numbers [of vulnerable] reverse. Business as usual is not going to break these cycles," Piper told IRIN.
"Our ambition is to cut the peak [of the suffering] and to reduce the length of time it takes to recover."
It can take three successive good harvests to recover from one poor year, but increasingly frequent repeated droughts are making such recovery impossible for many families.
"In a region where crises are more frequent and intense, it's all about reading signals, moving quickly and intervening in such a way that you stop a slide from people under pressure or at risk," he added.
The new strategy prioritizes early warning, early response and working in direct partnership with governments and development actors. "If done in isolation of government, it's not sustainable. Likewise, if isolated from development partners, then early response won't find its way into a bigger international system," said Piper, who also pushed for stronger inter-cluster collaboration.
Rodrigue Vinet, senior project coordinator with the UN Food and Agricultural Organization, told IRIN: "No one has the full solution. Only by working together that we can achieve or make progress."
National governments will need to do their share, including recognizing the impact of early marriage and other factors on population growth and its links with food insecurity, said an observer.
While the Sahel's 2013 harvest was on a par with the past five years' average yield, it represented a 13 percent reduction in per capital cereal availability because of population growth, estimates the UN.
In Niger, the population doubles every 22 years.
All actors need to step up their range of activities, said Vinet, including: building food stocks; distributing drought-resistant seeds on time; improving use of the limited water supply and preventative vaccination and timely destocking of animals; pre-positioning supplies and increasing village food stocks; promoting investment in scientific research; and improving water points for pastoralists and farmers, among other activities.