How climate and coronavirus forced people into debt and hunger in Mauritania

An early onset of the lean season and measures to mitigate the spread of the coronavirus affected food security in parts of Mauritania

WFP West Africa
Nov 27, 2020 · 3 min read
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Cash transfers have helped several families in Mauritania this year. Photo: WFP/Melissa Marques

Story by Melissa Marques

Between June and October every year in Mauritania, a largely desert country on Africa’s Atlantic coastline, tens of thousands of people experience a lean season — when food stocks and savings from the previous farming season are depleted before the new harvest has begun. But this year the lean season was longer and harsher as a result of a confluence of terrible events.

Erratic rainfall and dry spells in 2019 affected the mainly rain-fed agricultural system leading to a poor harvest, which resulted in people running out of food supplies earlier than usual in 2020 — an early onset of the lean season. This coincided with the outbreak of the Coronavirus pandemic. With the country’s authorities taking bold and swift measures — including closure of markets, restrictions of movements — to contain the spread of the disease, some of the most vulnerable people were left in a bind.

“It was difficult,” says El Bou Menne, the chief of the village of Limragha in Assaba region in the South of the country. “We had no more money, we were also cut off from supplies from the big cities for supplies. I have a family of 20 people to feed, so just imagine!”

Most inhabitants of the region rely on subsistence farming, livestock and petty trading for their food security and livelihoods. However, with little or no food reserves left and no income, many had to sell off their livestock at a lower price to make ends meet. Many more families resorted to debt to survive.

“We ate once a day,” says Menne who adds with a knot in his throat, “my brother spent several days with nothing in his belly. I was so sad for him because I couldn’t afford to help. We had to sell our cattle, we had taken on debt.”

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El Bou Menne after receiving assistance in his village of Limragh. Photo: WFP/Melissa Marques

Zeina Mint Elbechir, runs a butchery in Senhouri in Assaba region. He is among those who lend money to many families in his village. Yet, the socio-economic impact of the coronavirus pandemic also hit hard.

“You could say I’m on the other side because I lend money, but this situation also puts us in tricky situations,” says Elbechir. “I have to run after people to get the money back but they clearly can’t refund.”

As lean seasons become longer due to recurrent droughts, which weaken people’s ability to cope with the shocks, the United Nations World Food Programme (WFP) provides seasonal food assistance to food-insecure populations. This also includes specialized nutritious food for children as well as pregnant women and breastfeeding mothers.

Part of that support has come in the form of cash transfers. El Bou Menne, received US$ 580 to feed his family from June to September, allowing them to buy proteins like meat, as well as vegetables. “Without this assistance during this period we would have had a serious crisis,” says Menne.

WFP has scaled-up its response — assisting nearly 324,000 people affected by the lean season and impacted by the coronavirus pandemic through contributions from ARC Replica, Germany (BMZ), the UN’s Central Emergency Fund (CERF), the European Commission’s department for overseas humanitarian aid and for civil protection (ECHO), France, Monaco and the SDG Fund, and the Government of Mauritania.

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