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Why Do We Wait for Full-Blown Catastrophe?

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Hunger in the Sahel region is increasing at a dangerous pace. Already, the United Nations estimates that more than 10 million people in Burkina Faso, Chad, Mali, Mauritania and Niger are at risk of hunger.

Across the region, erratic rainfall, endemic poverty, dangerously low food reserves and rising prices for staples are combining to create an escalating crisis. The warning signs are both clear and growing.

The longer we wait for additional evidence, the larger the scale of the suffering.

A review of the international emergency response to last year's drought and famine in East Africa, where 2.6 million people received humanitarian aid, confirmed yet again the need to intervene earlier to avoid a full-blown catastrophe. A joint report (A Dangerous Delay) issued in January by Oxfam and Save the Children provides an insightful road map for improving the timeliness and effectiveness of relief aid.

Together, the members of the Humanitarian Coalition (CARE Canada, Oxfam Canada, Oxfam-Québec, Plan Canada, Save the Children Canada) are heeding the report's foremost recommendation: Act decisively and early. With long histories in the region, we are all present in the countries worst affected by this drought and are mounting responses to the unfolding situation.

In Chad, Mali and Niger, Burkina Faso, Mauritania and the Gambia, national governments have declared an emergency, and are appealing for help from the international community. In February, the Canadian International Development Agency announced it would commit $41 million to support nutrition and food assistance programs in the Sahel.

The Humanitarian Coalition members welcome this decision. But more will be needed to avoid a repeat of the East Africa scenario in 2011. The government of Canada can, and should, play a leading role by raising the alarm across the global community and acting without delay to ensure an effective international response.

Agencies already on the ground are well-positioned to mobilize quickly and adapt to the particular nature of respective local environments. This translates into more tailored responses, making better use of available resources. We have been working in the Sahel for decades. Having developed wide-ranging networks in the region, we are established front-line responders with trusted expertise, respected in the communities where we work. We are already addressing the urgent needs of vulnerable communities in Burkina Faso, Chad, Mali, Mauritania and Niger, but will need additional funding to avert the worst.

It is also worth noting that ongoing development work, such as establishing water treatment systems, delivering health services, and nutrition education, directly contributes to saving lives before, during, and after emergencies. These projects are essential to the well-being and sustainability of vulnerable populations, and they require funding as well.

While a full-blown crisis attracts more attention with vivid images and stories of severely malnourished children, it is by acting before the situation reaches that point that more lives can be saved.

The Humanitarian Coalition exists for the very purpose of responding quickly and effectively to large-scale disasters, when thousands of lives have been lost or are in direct peril. We have not reached that extreme in the Sahel yet, but it is only by bringing attention to the unfolding situation now that we collectively stand a chance of averting the worst.

By giving early, Canadians can help. The members of the Humanitarian Coalition can push back hunger in the Sahel. Why wait? This time, let's act before even more people's lives are at stake.

*This article previously appeared in the Toronto Star