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Over 2.5 million people threatened by famine because of Ebola

Even if the epidemics is slowing down, it will have serious consequences on food security during this year, warn UN agencies. In fact, the number of victims could be greater than the figure for those who directly died from the disease.

At last, some good news on the Ebola frontline : last January, in a letter to the UN General Assembly, the organisation’s Secretary General, Ban Ki-moon, said that the spread of the epidemics in the three most affected countries (Guinea-Conakry, Liberia and Sierra Leone) was slowing down. Whereas in September 2014, the number of cases was doubling every three or four weeks, a decline was observed in December for the first time. By then 20 206 cases and 7,905 deaths were reported in the world.

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Yet, the rosy picture described by Ban Ki-Moon was obscured by clouds. Simultaneously, the World Food Program (WFP) and the Food Agricultural Organization (FAO) came with bad news in a special report on food corps and food security in the three countries. Accordingly, during March, the number of persons affected by severe food insecurity should reach 2.56 million as against 2 million last November. The most affected country is Guinea (1.2 million) followed by Liberia (750,000) and Sierra Leone (610 000). Ebola is not the only cause for such situation but contributes for half of the number of cases accordingly.
According to the FAO, the lack of manpower in the agricultural sector caused by the epidemics, combined with inadequate response from governments in Africa and in Europe, such as the closure of borders, the establishment of quarantine zones and the restrictions to people movements did seriously limit the production and the trade of food items. These measures have disrupted markets and cross-border trade and triggered a decrease of the people’s revenue and purchasing power.

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WFP’s inquiries made during the last quarter of 2014 found that the beginning of the crops had little positive effects on food security in the most affected areas such as Guinée Forestière, the Lofa country (Liberia) and in the Kailahun district (Sierra Leone), where households adjusted to high prices or insufficient offer of products by reducing their consumption. The situation is accordingly worse in rural areas. Altogether, this prompted FAO to launch a special alert for the three countries, where rice and maize crops are particularly affected.
WFP and FAO are expecting a 12 percent decrease of rice output in Liberia, a 8 percent one in Sierra Leone and a 3.7 percent production decrease in Guinea. The situation is slightly better for cassava which requires less manpower and inputs with expected production falls of respectively 5 percent in Liberia, 3 percent in Sierra Leone and 1.2 percent in Guinea. Prices soared by 30 percent in Sierra Leone and by 40 percent in Liberia during the last quarter of 2014.

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As a consequence the three countries increase their food imports, especially those of rice. But according to commercial imports forecasts, cereal deficits of 90,000 tons, 55,000 t and 44,000 t will remain in Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea respectively. This gap might be covered either by international aid or from additional budget allocations by the governments of the three West-African state. However, the situation is a difficult one since tax and customs revenues have shrinked owing to the economy slow-down provoked by the epidemics.
Combined effect of a smaller production which in turn led to important job losses with a decrease of foreign direct investments has already forced the World Bank to review its GDP growth forecast for 2014 down from 5.9 percent to 2.2 percent for Liberia, , from 11.3 percent to 4 percent for Sierra Leone and from 4.5 percent to 0.5 percent for Guinea. Household revenues dropped sizeably by 12 percent in Guinea and 35 percent in Liberia.

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The rural world was particularly hit by the decrease of food crops but also by the fall of the cashcrops output, especially in Sierra Leone, where agriculture accounts for 57 percent of the GDP, as against 39 percent in Liberia and 20 percent in Guinea. In Sierra Leone, the production coffee and cocoa which account for 90 percent of all agricultural export, has decreased because a number of estates were abandoned. In Liberia, initial forecasts for rubber export were revised downwards by 20 percent while the Malaysian firm Sime Darby reduced the number of workers in its palmoil plantations.
A dramatic slowdown was also observed in the mining sector of those countries. The Brazilian corporation Vale which exploits iron deposits in both Guinea and Sierra Leone has put workers on temporary layoff during the last quarter of 2014. The Arcelor Mittal steelmaker in Liberia and Rusal which exploits bauxite in Guinea have reduced.

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Important investments such as the construction of the Simandou iron mine which is expected to generate 10,000 jobs and one billion dollars of tax and royalties per year for the Guinean state have been postponed. Tourism has been also dramatically affected with a fall of 70 percent to 30 percent of the occupation rate in Liberia and from 80 percent to 40 percent in Guinea, between February and September. In their recommendations, both FAO and WFP stress the interest to make sure that local food surpluses which could not be evacuated owing to obstacles to their transport and commercialisation, may reach the markets. At the same time, they recommend the restoration of the local farmers’ production systems and the supply of seeds, fertilizers and technical assistance to allow them to rebuild their production capacity and resilience. François Misser

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