07/02/2012 02:53 pm ET Updated Sep 01, 2012

In the Sahel, Resilience Can Save Lives

This blog is part of a series organized by The Huffington Post and the NGO alliance InterAction to call attention to the crisis in the Sahel, a region in sub-Saharan Africa where more than 18 million people face starvation and 1.1 million children under the age of 5 are at risk of dying from acute malnutrition. Click here to read more of HuffPost Impact's coverage of the Sahel and here to find out what InterAction members and others are doing in the Sahel.

Since the first signs last fall of a poor 2011 harvest, international aid groups like Oxfam have been warning that a crisis is looming for millions of people across seven West and Central African countries. Now in the "lean season" -- the period between when household food (and cash and other resources) are depleted and before the next harvest -- more than 18 million people are at risk of hunger. The next few months will require increased support from donors, UN agencies, and aid organizations to meet basic needs. This will require the political will and financial backing of regional and international donor governments to ensure assistance plans are put in place right away.

Unfortunately, drought in the Sahel region is a reality that is not going away. But drought does not need to lead to hunger. Prevention is key, and this means effective early warnings and community resilience. This year, early warnings have not yielded the kind of early action that can eliminate the worst suffering. It's a pattern all too similar to the recent example of East Africa. As Oxfam and Save the Children documented in their recent report, despite information about the impending disaster, the international community responded late, a delay that cost thousands of lives. In the current crisis, despite some early action by national governments in the region and donors, resources are again inadequate.

The governments of Niger, Chad, Mali, Burkina Faso, Senegal, the Gambia and Mauritania must execute response plans to address the crisis. And donor governments must step up with needed resources to implement these plans. At this point, approximately $1.6 billion is needed for emergency needs. And while a recent conference in Brussels has helped to close the funding gap, a crucial priority remains: mobilizing pledged funding and ensuring there are sufficient resources available to meet urgent needs.

But scaling up emergency response is just one step in a longer-term process of responding to this disaster and trying to reduce the likelihood and impact of future droughts and crop failures. Addressing the underlying factors that contribute to vulnerability among smallholder food producers -- small farmers and pastoralists -- requires real political commitment. This is why Oxfam's GROW campaign is focused on strengthening investments in these smallholder food producers. At the same time we are urging governments to act now to respond to the crisis, we are also working with partners in the Sahel region to prepare for the future once the worst of the current crisis has subsided. While the next few months are critical, the immediate response does not lessen the need to build resilience over the long-term to break the cycle of hunger.

A good place to start is by incorporating activities that will reduce vulnerability to disaster into the current response to help prepare for the next drought. For example, rehabilitating water sources and introducing agriculture practices that can capture and better utilize rain water. Going forward, efforts to help farmers manage risk through weather-based index insurance (currently being planned in Senegal through Oxfam's R4 work) also hold promise.

Alongside these efforts, farmers need strong support from their governments to make them more productive as food producers and more able to profit from their efforts. Investments in infrastructure to facilitate market access, research and development to identify practical solutions to help farmers adapt to climate change, and the provision of agriculture extension services to provide advice and information that will increase crop production are just three examples where increased investments are urgently needed.

Calling for these kinds of interventions is easy, finding concrete solutions more complex, and turning plans into real programs of support for food producers, harder still. But if we want to prevent families in the Sahel region from being in this position the next time a major drought hits, it's essential.