At this very moment more than 18 million people across the Sahel region of West Africa, about half of them children, are at risk from hunger.
For months now, the region has been in the grips of a drought and food crisis spurred by erratic rains, failed crops, poor harvests, recurring drought, and rising food and fuel costs. Violence and political turmoil in parts of the region like Timbuktu have further exacerbated the crisis with roughly 300,000 Malian refugees running for their lives toward safety and food in neighbouring countries that were already food insecure long before they arrived.
While aid agencies like Plan Canada and fellow members of the Humanitarian Coalition do our best to respond and to encourage public attention and support, my biggest fear in all of this is that people will look at this crisis, roll their eyes in mock surprise or indifference, and say "Oh another Africa crisis..." or "Here we go again, another sad story about hungry African children."
Given the number of African famines and droughts I've seen as an aid worker over the last three decades, I can see how people could become apathetic over time, but I don't think it's fair, nor accurate, to dismiss this latest crisis in a "here we go again" kind of way.
I say it's not fair because I know that throughout past famines and droughts, African farmers have become more and more resilient, and have made so much headway over the years in preparedness and recovery to crises like these -- crises that are practically a way of life in countries where so many people's lives and livelihoods are intrinsically linked to climate trends and uncontrollable conditions.
In fact, like Canadian farmers who have learned how to survive the unpredictability of good and bad weather, local African farmers have been doing their best to survive extreme climate events for decades. With support from Plan, many African farmers have been able to manage through back-to-back seasons of erratic rains and prolonged droughts through smart farming techniques, better and more effective grain storage systems, and other disaster preparedness and back-up processes.
The reality is this latest drought has simply overwhelmed those hard-won systems and processes, and it has occurred in regions where families, even though they've been surviving, still struggle against poverty.
On this side of the world, farmers in the American midwest are now facing what many are calling the worst drought in 50 years and, as reported in recent news, experts are sounding the alarm on increasing global food shortages that will result and "calling for international action to avoid a repeat of the worldwide food price crisis of 2008." By many accounts, this too is a natural climate event that has overwhelmed even the wealthy U.S midwest farming industry despite the best tools, resources, and systems farmers had in place before the drought occurred.
While I fear people's indifference, I also hold on to my own hope. My hope that people worldwide, and especially Canadians who have shown compassion and generosity in disasters before, will understand that the Sahel food crisis is not just another African tragedy about political fighting and poor people.
That people will see it as much more than this -- a natural disaster that could happen anywhere in the world but is happening today in a region with no safety net left . A natural disaster that, like with any emergency, requires our urgent attention and support so that children can eat and grow up healthy and lives can be saved.