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West Africa Food Crisis 2005

Last updated July 2011

West Africa Crisis Appeal

In 2005, a major food shortage affected almost eight million people in West Africa which led to severe malnourishment among thousands of children.


  • The crisis engulfed the drought-prone region of the Sahel, where four of the world’s poorest countries were affected: Niger, Mali, Mauritania and Burkina Faso.
  • Niger was the worst affected with 3.6 million of its 12 million population suffering severe hunger.
  • The crisis had been developing since August 2004 when a massive locust invasion swept the area during the growing season and destroyed the harvest. This combined with severe drought left the population with little food.


    The Sahel has been affected by food security problems for several decades. The region first came to the world’s attention in the early 1970s when severe drought led to a very serious food security crisis and a major humanitarian response.

    This is an area of the world characterised by extreme poverty and very high levels of vulnerability.

    The lean period or “soudure”, when the harvest from the previous year has been exhausted and the current season’s production is not yet available, is always difficult in the Sahel. The length of this period depends on the quantity of the previous year’s production. Distribution of free or subsidised food in some areas of Mali and Burkina Faso has limited the impact of food shortages in these countries.


    Niger is one of the poorest countries in the world. In March 2005, cereal prices in Niger were 46 per cent higher than at this time in 2003. Many people moved out of rural areas in Niger to urban centres in search of food and employment.

    This was said to be Niger’s worst food security crisis since 1984. Several years of particularly severe economic hardship in Niger reduced people’s capacity to cope. The situation was particularly bad for pastoral/nomadic herding communities.

    Only around 15 per cent of land in Niger is suitable for agriculture. Even in years of relative normality in Niger, around 40 per cent (one million) of children suffer from some degree of malnutrition.

    At the height of the crisis, there was concern that one in ten children could die unless they got urgent help.


    Compared to Niger, Mali, Burkina Faso and Mauritania were not as badly affected by the food crisis. Around 20 per cent of the Mali population was affected by the food shortage. (Population around 11 million) Animal carcasses littered the hardest hit areas, including cattle, horses and donkeys.


    An estimated 750,000 people, or 26 per cent of the population, was affected. (Population of nearly three million)

    Mauritania suffered three years of drought until 2004 when the rains came but with them came the Sahel region’s worst invasion of locusts in 20 years. The locusts infested every corner of Mauritania’s agricultural zone, munching their way through the cereal and other crops that are the lifeblood of the rural poor.

    Burkina Faso

    Around 500,000 people were left vulnerable out of a population of more than 13 million.

    Red Cross response

    On 22 July 2005, the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies launched an appeal for $14 million to help up to 45,000 families, some 220,000 people, in the region. The Red Cross provided immediate food relief such as cereal and rice stocks to the most vulnerable, including fortified food for severely undernourished children.

    From June to October 2005, in the first phase of its response, the Red Cross:

    • distributed a monthly food rations to 532,000 people in Niger, Mali, Burkina Faso and Mauritania
    • provided emergency health services with supplementary feeding for the most vulnerable children under five years old (24,500 children in Niger)
    • distributed cash vouchers to 20,000 people in severely affected communities in Niger and Mali.


    In phase two, 20 October 2005 to 20 January 2006, the Red Cross:

    • gave livestock support to 5,000 pastoralists/herders in Niger and Mali
    • placed of cereal banks in 250 of the worst affected communities in Mali and Niger
    • led sustainable health interventions to improve long-term health of the most vulnerable.

    British Red Cross response

    The British Red Cross launched an emergency appeal on 21 July 2005, which raised £2.8 million. It also received £4 million from the Disasters Emergency Committee appeal monies, with which it purchased over £3 million worth of food and provided support for the relief operation.

    The British Red Cross supplied Unimix, a highly nutritious food supplement, which was distributed from feeding centres for moderately malnourished children. An additional food ration was provided for the families of vulnerable children. More severely malnourished children were referred to other agencies specialising in therapeutic feeding.

    A logistics team was sent to Niger on 24 July 2005 to assist the Niger Red Cross with their relief effort. This was the first flight chartered by a British aid agency to the region. Altogether two logistics teams were sent to the region to co-ordinate the arrival and onward distribution of Red Cross relief items such as food, seeds and medical equipment that were delivered to Niger.


    The British Red Cross is pioneered an innovative new cash project in Niger, which supported 4,000 families. Eighty-four villages in the district of Tanut, in northeast Niger, were the focus of the project, which provided £120 per household.

    Many of these households had been forced to sell not only their remaining livestock, but also other items such as clothes and cooking utensils in order to buy food. The outcome of this programme was extremely positive, with families able to bridge the gap until the harvest came in. Many families purchased food, repaid debts and bought livestock. But communities also pooled some of the money to establish communal grain stores and repair wells.


    Find out about current emergencies

    Stories about the West Africa food crisis

    During every emergency aid appeal, the public quite rightly demands to know if the money donated is really getting to the people who need it.

    Read an interview with Red Cross logistician Justin Cuckow, who had to feed 8,000 malnourished children in a matter of weeks.

    Food insecurity is creating a potentially disastrous situation in Mali, threatening thousands of lives.

    The massive humanitarian response to the Niger food crisis is distant and meaningless to the Tuareg nomads of northern Mali.

    For the first time since the Red Cross deployment began in Niger, a bag of food changes hands.

    One of the most demanding parts of aid operations is the planning required to ensure food distribution doesn't do more harm than good.


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