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Sahel food crisis: The cost of climate change

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Some of my most vivid images of the Sahel food crisis are of hands and feet.

“The climate was better in the past," said Fatoumata Dioum, shown here in her garden in Fafacourou, Senegal. "Now, there is sometimes too much rain, sometimes not enough. We began to notice this more than ten years ago.”

When I traveled to Senegal recently to document Oxfam’s work on the crisis, I met with women farmers who lost their last harvest to erratic rains. Several times I noticed an injury to a woman’s foot or finger—usually something simple that without medical care had become so serious that it was disabling or worse: from the look of it, some would require amputation. But none of the women had any food stocks left  and, with prices on the rise, none could afford to purchase enough for her family to eat, so a visit to the doctor was out of the question.

The painful realities in West Africa are part of a bigger picture in which climate change and food price spikes are jeopardizing the lives and futures of many of the most vulnerable people around the world. A recent Oxfam research brief –”Extreme Weather, Extreme Prices” – explains how:

 

“When a weather event drives local or regional price spikes, people living in poverty often face a double shock: having to cope with higher prices at a time when the direct effects of the weather may have also depleted their assets, destroyed their crops, or stripped them of their livelihood… Pastoralists and small-scale subsistence farmers are hit hard… where the loss of livestock and crops has diminished available food and drastically reduced the value of their assets so that they cannot afford to buy food, either.”

“Extreme Weather, Extreme Prices” goes on to describe likely scenarios—developed by the Institute of Development Studies—if climate change, extreme weather, and food price spikes continue unabated.

The women and men I met in Senegal have borne the brunt of powerful storms and extremes of heat and drought, and they know for a fact that when it comes to weather, they live in a different world than the last generation. Photo: Holly Pickett/Oxfam

What’s to be done? Reducing greenhouse gas emissions is crucial, as is protecting poor people from volatile food prices – not only by establishing food reserves to buffer the shocks but also by investing in rural agriculture in ways that help farmers and herders create more secure futures for their families.

By now some of the women I met—those who are participating in Oxfam programs—have the means to seek medical care for their injuries, thanks to cash payments they received through our partner organization FODDE. And with luck their next harvest will be a good one, but as small-scale farmers around the world face a new and more volatile environment, there’s more for us all to do than wish for luck.

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