By Nellie Peyton
DAKAR, Aug 30 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Hundreds of thousands of people in Senegal and Mauritania are at risk of going hungry in the coming year because not enough grass has grown to feed the region's cattle, analysts said on Friday.
Satellite maps show barren pastures across large swaths of the two West African countries, which means animals will die, robbing owners of their sole source of food and income.
"Livestock herding is the key pillar of food security for the area," said Alex Orenstein, a data scientist specialising on pastoralism in the Sahel.
"Herders feel the pain first, but it touches everyone in the region soon enough," he said.
A similar lack of pasture in 2017 left 5 million people needing food aid the subsequent year across six countries in West Africa's Sahel region, a grassy zone below the Sahara desert.
There are not yet estimates of the number of people who could be affected by the current situation, but in some areas it looks worse than 2017, said Zakari Saley Bana, a disaster risk reduction advisor for the charity Action Against Hunger (ACF).
About 350,000 families depend on cattle herding in Senegal, according to a pastoralists' association.
"The situation is very worrisome," Saley Bana said, estimating that aid agencies will need to step up assistance.
The Sahel has a rainy season from July to September, after which herds must survive on whatever grass has grown until the next rainy season.
This year, the rain did not start until late August.
Maps of vegetation growth created by ACF show severe deficits stretching across the Sahel to Chad, but most widespread in northern Senegal and southern Mauritania.
Starvation usually comes in May or June the year after, when people have gone the longest time without rain. So while poor rains in 2017 caused a hunger crisis last year, the effects of the current deficit may only be felt in 2020.
A true picture will not be clear until the end of the rainy season, but the outlook is unlikely to improve, said Orenstein.
Heavy rains now are likely to cause flooding rather than encourage plant growth, he said.
There is also a risk of conflict as herders migrate into farming areas in search of fodder, said Saley Bana.
Competition between farmers and herders over scarce resources is one of the main sources of deadly conflict in West Africa, leading to massacres this year in Mali and killing more people than Boko Haram in Nigeria.
(Reporting by Nellie Peyton, editing by Lyndsay Griffiths; Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's and LGBT+ rights, human trafficking, property rights, and climate change. Visit http://news.trust.org)
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