All posts by Tshibangu Kalala

The Ebola outbreak in West Africa: the implication for food security

As West African nations are grappling with the Ebola Hemorrhagic fever (EVD) outbreak declared in March 2014, and said by Thomas Frieden, Director of the U.S Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to be “unlike anything since the emergence of HIV/AIDS” and, “the largest and most complex outbreak since the Ebola virus was first discovered in 1976”according to the Word Health Organization. Concerns are growing about the possible spread of the disease throughout the African continent. While it is essential to take stock of the disease itself, its origin, its mode of transmission, symptoms and treatment, it is also important to focus on the dramatic impact of EVD on agriculture and food production in the affected region of West Africa.

In the countries most affected by the current outbreak (Sierra Leone, Guinea, Liberia and Now Mali), first cases were recorded primarily in cities and rural areas. These countries have fragile political and economic structures, as they have recently experienced severe civil conflict and are ranked among the poorest countries in the world.  In early September 2014, the UNFAO issued a special alert about the agricultural and food production situation in Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone. The agency was concerned that the scale of transmission of the Ebola virus and the emergency measures taken by local government in both affected and non affected countries in the West Africa region, (establishing quarantine areas and restriction on movement of people) could have a negative impact on crop production for staple crops such as rice, millet and maize that were scheduled to be harvested in October and November.  The epidemic has hit West Africa in waves. In certain localities the EVD outbreak was declared in June, a period during which farmers should plant rice. In some instances farmers started planting several weeks late. As most of crops in this region are rain fed, there is no doubt that crops will be affected. Additionally, farming work is a collective activity executed by different members of a household using all available manpower for cultivating, planting weeding or harvesting, but this has not been the case this year due to the fear of spreading the disease. Farmers are afraid to work in groups. In this region there is high demand for agricultural manpower during the harvest and post-harvest season, and restriction on population movements will result in a shortage of agricultural labor. This has forced farmers to abandon their fields and their food stocks in areas where there is high incidence of infection, while agricultural workers can no longer travel to seek casual jobs because of fears of spreading the disease. Moreover, even if the crop harvest can take place, the spread of the disease also affects the marketing of agricultural products, as the movement of traders in rural areas is also limited.

What is the impact of Ebola on food security of the affected countries?

The price of certain staple foods has started to spike in the affected countries. This is caused by the emergency measures taken by the governments of neighboring countries and foreign states enforcing the closure of land borders with affected countries, the suspension of flights to these countries, and limiting food imports from these countries. All of these measures have contributed to greatly reducing cross-border trade, and have disrupted the internal movement of food. Among government actions that impact the price of food, the ban on consumption of ” bush meat ” should also be mentioned. The third factor influencing the increase in food prices has been the consumer panic, which has caused the bulk buying of food that has caused shortage. The picture painted above shows that millions of people in countries hit by EDV could be affected by food insecurity, and that emergency food assistance is urgently needed.  While we focus on delivering relief/emergency food assistance in affected area, which is a noble way to express compassion and to show the best of our humanity, it is also important to think about the possible negative effects of food assistance. The negative impacts include market distortions, for example freely available emergency food aid has been responsible for reducing the demand for local crops. I call for a more cautious approach from governments in the affected countries to ensure that emergency food aid brings the desired benefits, without compromising the domestic food production and market. My fear is that the long-term provision of food aid to people in need of assistance could create a dependency syndrome. In response to the looming food insecurity situation, I propose that the assistance be channeled through cash transfer, as it will generate a range of indirect benefits to beneficiaries and local economies. Countries in the West Africa region should rethink border restrictions in order to allow the flow of food in the region and at the same time increase surveillance on possible infectious cases.

 

Sources:

  1. http://www.who.int/csr/disease/ebola/faq-ebola/en/
  2. http://www.who.int/csr/disease/ebola/note-ebola-food-safety/en/
  3. http://www.fao.org/emergencies/crisis/ebola/en/
  4. http://www.worldbank.org
  5. http://documents.wfp.org/stellent/groups/public/documents/ena/wfp269810.pdf