Cattle herders in West Africa are facing a severe lean season this year due to poor rains and insufficient plant growth, stoking the risk of conflict as they change migration patterns in search of food, an aid agency warned this week.
In parts of Mauritania, Chad and northern Senegal vegetation levels are the lowest in years, said international organisation Action Against Hunger, basing its reports on satellite data.
Livestock herding is a traditional activity in West Africa's Sahel, a semi-arid belt below the Sahara, but herders have become increasingly vulnerable to food insecurity as climate change disrupts rain patterns in the region, experts say.
Herders in northern Senegal normally migrate south starting in January, but this year some have left already, said Alex Merkovic, an Action Against Hunger advisor and data analyst.
"Vegetation has not attained the basic level to sustain grazing animals," Merkovic told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
"Places that are supposed to be lush and green just look totally bare."
The Sahel has a rainy season from roughly July to September, after which herds must survive on whatever grass has grown until the next rainy season begins, he said. This year the rain was intermittent, with long dry spells in between.
In Mauritania, 65 per cent of rainfall monitoring stations showed a deficit compared to last year, and nearly half showed that rain levels were below the 1981-2010 average, the agriculture ministry said in a report.
In one part of northern Senegal, cumulative rain from June to August was 50mm, compared to nearly 300mm in the same period last year, said Aliou Samba Ba, head of the Reseau Billital Maroobe, a pastoralists' association.
"The vegetation is very sparse. It is clear that we won't be able to make it until February," Ba said.
"If we lose our animals, we don't have the resources to eat or to send our kids to school."
Some people from the rural zone of Namarel in northern Senegal have already left, while others will try to survive for another month or two before seeking new pastureland, Ba said.
The risk of conflict increases and disputes can turn violent when herders migrate early or stay too long, Merkovic said.
The UN Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) is still collecting data on the situation and will publish its own assessment next month, said regional coordinator Coumba Sow.
Climate change has increased the frequency and intensity of these damaging weather events, she added.