Senegal is no stranger to malnutrition. Each year, the country sees cases of malnutrition spike in the summer months. Coupled with volatile harvests, climatic events and political instability, malnutrition will remain an enduring challenge for Senegal in the coming years. Despite these concerns, the Senegalese government has recently shown a strong commitment to alleviate malnutrition through close cooperation with humanitarian organizations.

Malnutrition in Senegal centers on what many call the “lean season.” This grimly-named period usually lasts from June through September, when food stocks from the previous year’s harvest approach depletion. In rural areas, where residents depend on the annual harvest for both income and sustenance, the lean season requires locals to reduce the quantity and the quality of their meals. The lean season thus delivers a double whammy, adding the specter of a malnutrition crisis to food security concerns.

In recent years, poor harvests have brought malnutrition in Senegal to crisis levels. Low harvest yields in 2011 led to the declaration of a malnutrition emergency in April of 2012. In the regions of Diourbel and Matam, identified the previous year as priority regions, national nutritional surveys had predicted under 5,000 cases of severe acute malnutrition, or SAM, during the 2012 lean season. These regions saw more than 13,000 cases of SAM. To make matters worse, Diourbel and other western regions were struck by floods in August and September of that year, destroying health facilities and affecting more than 300,000 people. The nutritional situation in rural Senegal, particularly in Diourbel, remained precarious the next year, with United Nations Regional Humanitarian Coordinator Robert Piper paying the region a special visit.

Harvest yields in 2014 were once again inadequate—down 16 percent from the previous year’s harvest and 20 percent below the five-year average, according to the World Food Programme. In regions suffering from insufficient rainfall, 2014 and 2015 harvest yields fell by up to 80 percent, according to USAID. If summer 2015 rains fall short, malnutrition in Senegal may reach crisis levels in the coming months.

Despite this concerning outlook, recent developments give cause for optimism. Before the declaration of a malnutrition emergency in 2012, the Senegalese government had made fighting malnutrition a key priority. During the 2012 crisis, the government collaborated closely with UNICEF, the World Food Programme, the World Health Organization and numerous NGOs to plan its response. Additionally, humanitarian organizations have pioneered innovative tactics to assist families at risk of malnutrition. The World Food Programme, for instance, began transferring money to vulnerable families in southern Senegal via text message during the 2014 lean season.

Though these steps are encouraging, malnutrition in Senegal remains a chronic issue. The lean season is still a defining feature of rural Senegalese life, and weak seasonal rainfall all but guarantees a malnutrition crisis. Political instability also poses difficulties. A history of separatist activity in the Ziguinchor region (struck by the 2012 floods) has left locals particularly susceptible to malnutrition emergencies.

Perhaps most critically, humanitarian initiatives that tackle malnutrition in Senegal are regularly underfunded. UNICEF’s response to the 2012 malnutrition crisis received only two-thirds of its desired funding, while food security and nutrition initiatives in 2013 met only 36 percent of their funding goals, according to U.N. sources. In spite of recent strides, malnutrition will likely continue to affect Senegal for years to come.

– Leo Zucker

Sources: Scaling Up Nutrition, UNICEF, IAEA, Relief Web 1, European Commission, WFP 1, WFP 2, Relief Web 2, Wikipedia
Photo: Thomson Reuters Foundation