The food insecurity situation in Burkina Faso is currently characterized by a high level of prevalence with 1.2 million people in need of immediate assistance and more than 300.000 children under the age of five years suffering from acute malnutrition at the national level; the populations of the Sahel zone being the most affected. Malnutrition is chronic and the causes of it are structural and complex. They consist of a combination of several factors including an annual agricultural production season of four months only, climate vulnerability, the depletion of natural resources, a chronic deficit in agricultural production, and very poor access to basic social services due to the weak presence of the State.
The insecurity is marked by attacks by jihadist groups, and the increase in inter-community conflicts exacerbate food and nutritional insecurity in the Sahel and the Centre-North by reducing the already fragile livelihoods of populations who live mainly on agriculture and of pastoralism. Insecurity limits access to fields and agricultural production. The resulting closing of roads affects the supply of agricultural products to markets, reduces their availability, limits access due to fluctuating prices, hinders human’s and animals' access to pastures inside Burkina, and onwards to Mali and Niger. The looting of food and livestock reserves reduces the resilience of communities affected by this insecurity. In addition, several health facilities are closed or operating at minimum capacity in areas affected by insecurity, thereby reducing access to health services including those provided to children suffering from severe malnutrition.
Populations are thus forced to move on to other areas of the country (almost one million internally displaced people (IDPs) according to the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs) resulting in overcrowding of the host cities. While some IDPs reside in camps, more than 80% of them stay with host families whose food supplies are running out. The related humanitarian needs are not covered in the Sahel and the Centre-North (only 3% of IDPs’ needs are covered in Soum, 1% in Oudalan and 2% in Bam, the most affected locations).
The Covid-19 pandemic exacerbates this situation. The various measures taken to restrict the movement of goods and merchandises have a negative impact on the functioning of markets already affected by insecurity. Added to that is the closing of several small businesses in the informal sector, which on top of causing a significant increase in unemployment, has also resulted in lower income for households dependent on this sector. Measures taken for the prevention of the Covid-19 pandemic are likely to increase the vulnerability of communities and the number of food insecure people, especially during the lean season ahead.
The health system is also affected. Restrictions on the movement of people established to curb the spread of Covid-19 have, for example, resulted in the temporary suspension of certain vaccination campaigns and reduced the access of humanitarian organizations to populations, thus hampering the response to their basic needs.
The recent lifting of travel restrictions related to Covid-19 will facilitate the resumption of humanitarian aid to IDPs. The National Committee for Emergency Relief has already called for increased support for immediate food needs and access to basic social services for the most vulnerable groups; while intensifying awareness campaigns on Covid-19 prevention measures regarding hygiene and sanitation in a context where it is difficult to adhere to social distancing measures due to cultural habits.
In the long term, the response to the Covid-19 crisis must be multi-sectoral and tackle the structural causes of the challenges facing Burkina. Concerning health, this should include improving access to medical care, training staff and strengthening the institutional capacities of health care centres. The response must include the lessons learned from the various past epidemics of variable magnitude (measles, meningitis, yellow fever) but especially from the implementation of the reform of the health system including a better institutional anchoring of nutritional health and its promotion to household scale (use of foods with high nutritional value, food diversification, promotion of breastfeeding, etc.).
The response would also involve revising the national food and nutrition security policy, notably by strengthening political, institutional and financial governance, as well as the capacities for prevention and response to food and nutrition crises. Particular emphasis should be placed on strengthening the economic and social resilience of populations. Enhancing the agronomic potential of the surplus areas of Loroum, Bam and Soum and Oudalan, improving water control for agro-pastoral activities, and adopting agro-ecological practices in the Sahel zone are examples of actions to be taken in order to improve food and nutritional security.
Jean Philippe JARRY is National Director of the German NGO "Welthungerhilfe" in Burkina Faso. An agricultural economist by profession, he has gained a lot of experience in the field of agricultural development in West and Central Africa and Madagascar after a 20-year career in the field.