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Of poor rains and withered harvests

It is hard to cover a drought when it rains.

Last modified: 15 Jun 2012 16:40

It is hard to cover a drought when it rains.

And boy did it rain in Burkina Faso's capital Ouagadougou the night before we set out for The Sahel.

The flashlights of the hotel's night watchmen sliced through the darkness as they ran about the wind-whipped trees, checking everything was fastened down.

Flashes of lightning and a distant rumble brought the first fat drops, which quickly turned into an hour-long torrent.

It is said that the best time of year to visit the Sahel – on the southern edge of the Sahara desert – is after the first rains, when the barren red land springs to life.

But the sight of fresh plants pushing through the hard earth was as worrying for us as it was welcome for the local farmers.

How can one convey their struggle with pictures of lush green vegetation, even when it contains so little nutrition that even the goats would not even eat it?

The UN says around 18 million people across the Sahel face hunger after last year's poor rains and withered harvests.

We found a number of livestock recently dead from starvation, vultures picking at the fur draped over the bones.

These animals have so little flesh, the farmers tell us, they wouldn't even be able to sell three of them for a sack of grain.

The wet weather has loosened the soil enough for planting.

But with grain stores empty since February, many people in the Sahel are eating the seeds they should be sowing.

Impassable roads

There is no certainty the rains will continue for the three months until harvest - which is the next time anyone here will be able to replenish their food and, if they are lucky, their livestock.

The rains also bring new problems.

The bumpy, dusty tracks leading to many of the villages become a quagmire – impassable for both the WFP's large lorries carrying hundreds of thousands of ration packs and the small mopeds of the Red Cross workers who distribute them.

These handouts are crucial for the mothers and young babies who quickly succumb, even in a good year, to malnutrition during the hunger season.

Their already weakened immune systems are now also highly susceptible to diarrhoea from drinking the rainwater, as well as malaria.

So although the pictures tell one story, the reality is quite another.

The rains have not brought an end to drought in the Sahel.