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Attack and suspended humanitarian access underscore risk of Famine in Djibo

  • Alert
  • Burkina Faso
  • December 12, 2023
Attack and suspended humanitarian access underscore risk of Famine in Djibo

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The suspension of humanitarian food assistance delivery flights since mid-October due to rising insecurity, coupled with a large-scale attack on military and civilians by armed terrorist groups (ATGs) in late November, warrant increasing alarm for the risk of Famine (IPC Phase 5) in the Djibo municipality of Burkina Faso’s Sahel Region. Since February 2023, FEWS NET has warned that up to 300,000 people in Djibo are experiencing severe levels of acute food insecurity, and that there is a credible alternative scenario in which Famine (IPC Phase 5) would occur if intensifying conflict and disruptions to humanitarian access further restrict access to food. Conflict and the blockade of Djibo by ATGs have already placed extreme constraints on population movement, market activity, and humanitarian access for nearly two years. Donors, the government, and humanitarian partners must take further, immediate action to secure humanitarian access, resume and scale-up food assistance, address multi-sectoral needs to prevent and treat acute malnutrition and illness, and reduce the risk of death and destitution. Decision-makers should not await confirmation of whether Famine (IPC Phase 5) exists – a technical classification that indicates a critical mass of people are already dying from hunger each day – before undertaking urgent action.

Prior to October, the actions of ATGs had already caused significant displacement, cut off populations’ access to fields, obstructed market supply flows, and limited humanitarian access to logistically challenging and costly airborne delivery by helicopter. Less than one-third of households harvested key staple foods this year, and stocks from the harvest were expected to be exhausted by December, based on key informant reports. At the same time, Transition Authority military escorts have only been able to facilitate supply deliveries to markets every three to five months, resulting in protracted food shortages and soaring food prices in an environment where income-generating activity has largely collapsed. As a result, populations of Djibo have experienced protracted, moderate to large food consumption gaps while relying on a combination of wild foods, peri-urban gardens, limited income from water or firewood sales, irregular access to remittances from relatives, and limited food assistance to survive. Planned food assistance delivered by WFP was expected to reach just 16 percent of the population on average per month between October and December, an amount that was already insufficient to prevent severe hunger and acute malnutrition among the population.

Figure 1

Share of the population of Djibo that received food assistance from January to November 2023
share of the population of Djibo that received food assistance from January to November 2023

Source: FEWS NET analysis of WFP distribution data

In mid-to-late October, humanitarian cargo flights were suspended, and less than 1 percent of the population received food assistance in November (Figure 1). This development illustrates the vulnerability of aerial food aid to recurrent attacks, inadequate donor funding, and insufficient action to improve humanitarian access. On November 26, a coordinated attack by ATGs on the military outpost of Djibo resulted in significant collateral damage in civilian areas – including the burning of already insufficient commercial food stocks – and further reduced the perimeter of population movement around the town, which is in turn reducing households’ ability to gather wild foods and harvest vegetables from gardens along the dam. Key informants report many households are consuming just one limited meal per day and supplementing staples with wild leaves. Social action and municipal services no longer have any food stocks to distribute to increasingly desperate poor households. Without food assistance, households that were able to produce a harvest run the risk of exhausting their food stocks significantly earlier than previously projected. Given the large share of the population experiencing substantial food consumption deficits, the erosion of most means of coping, and the absence of most health interventions, it is likely that a prolonged suspension of food assistance deliveries will lead to rising levels of acute malnutrition and mortality in the near term. 

The lack of humanitarian access to Djibo makes it difficult to confirm the degree of deterioration in food security since October. Most recently, FEWS NET assessed the population of Djibo faced Emergency (IPC Phase 4) and Catastrophe (IPC Phase 5) outcomes, reflecting severe hunger and atypically high levels of acute malnutrition and mortality. However, humanitarian partners are unable to collect key indicators on food consumption, nutrition, or mortality in the worst-affected areas of Djibo, and telecommunications are severely limited. Available information is largely confined to a small number of reports from key informants that reside in, or recently escaped from, the area. It is unlikely that sufficient data-driven evidence documenting the existence or absence of Famine (IPC Phase 5) will be obtained in the near term. Regardless, it is critical to bear in mind that a classification of Famine (IPC Phase 5) only confirms that lives have already been lost and the accumulation of deaths have reached a critical tipping point that is difficult to reverse. 

While the most recent attack was focused on Djibo, the increasingly volatile security environment across the region is also taking a severe toll on food security in other nearby blockaded areas. Of high concern are the municipalities of Arbinda and Sebba, also in the Sahel Region, which have also been under blockade for over a year and require urgent humanitarian aid. While tactics employed by ATGs during the sieges of these areas have been less severe than in Djibo, FEWS NET assesses the impacts on food availability and access are also driving Emergency (IPC Phase 4) outcomes in these areas, with a subset of worst-off households facing Catastrophe (IPC Phase 5). There are reports of atypically high levels of begging and people risking their lives to collect wild foods in areas where ATGs are likely to attack, indicative of the increasing scarcity of strategies available for survival. FEWS NET is closely monitoring the risk of further deterioration in the severity of acute food insecurity in these areas as well. 

The severity of acute food insecurity in Burkina Faso’s Sahel Region, which faces Emergency (IPC Phase 4) and Catastrophe (IPC Phase 5) outcomes, is already among the worst globally; yet only 31 percent of the country’s 2023 humanitarian response plan for addressing food security is funded and assistance delivery plans for 2024 are not yet available. The level of concern for the risk of Famine (IPC Phase 5) will intensify the longer the siege persists and food assistance remains suspended. An immediate resumption of humanitarian assistance deliveries, underpinned by guarantees of humanitarian access, is urgently needed to save lives, and government decision-makers should not await confirmation of whether Famine (IPC Phase 5) exists before undertaking further action.

Recommended citation: FEWS NET. Burkina Faso Alert December 12, 2023: Attack and suspended humanitarian access underscore risk of Famine in Djibo, 2023.

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