Malnutrition & seasonality

Seasonality: The missing piece of the undernutrition puzzle

Morwenna Sullivan, Food Security Advisor, explains the annual seasons of hunger which put millions of people at risk every year.

By Christine Kahmann

Dec 15 2013

Every year, seasonal hunger cycles – some driven by climatic patterns, others by different forms of economic, political and social fragility – keep hundreds of millions of families in the world trapped in poverty and hunger. And because they occur with numbing regularity, they rarely capture the world’s attention with the same intensity as catastrophic natural disasters and epidemic disease. 

The link between seasonal hunger and child undernutrition is often striking. Why?

All of the underlying causes of undernutrition (inadequate care practices, poor public health and food insecurity) are subject to seasonal variation.  For rural households, seasonal hunger peaks when food stocks have been depleted and the current harvest has yet to be brought in from the fields. At the same time food prices rise due to limited availability further impeding access to food for many households who are reliant on the market to cover at least some of their food needs. This hunger period coincides with the rainy season, when disease, particularly diarrhoea, strikes hardest. The combined effect of heightened food insecurity and increased risk of disease can lead to seasonal peaks in child undernutrition.

How can the cycle of seasonal hunger be broken?

With high level political leadership, seasonal hunger can, and must, become ancient history. At minimum governments need to build a seasonal perspective into poverty reduction strategies and resilience building programmes; programmes must be tailored to the local seasonal context. Governments need to scale up seasonal social protection programmes such as cash for work, warrantage, destocking/restocking and health gardens.
Health and nutrition stocks should be pre-positioned in risk prone areas well before the onset of the lean season.  Support needs to be given to income diversification for poor households, including support to rural–urban linkages. Off-farm income earning work is one of the best buffers against seasonal stress. Investment in training schemes to build peoples’ skill sets is needed. This will boost their income generating potential.  Governments must also ensure that appropriate indicators are developed to enable seasonal analysis to inform existing early warning systems. In particular, market price indicators must be able to detect seasonal household level fluctuations in purchasing power. Donors, national governments and regional bodies must ensure that early warning is translated into early action.
At best, interventions which address immediate needs should be run in parallel with longer term programmes aiming to build communities’ resilience.

Are there any programmes or initiatives that have proven successful in addressing seasonal challenges?

Yes.  Action Against Hunger has developed a multi sectoral seasonal calendar tool which has enabled us to improve our understanding of nutrition insecurity and the fluctuations (in particular, the peaks) of severe acute malnutrition in a given area of operation.  The tool allows users to build a clearer picture of the main characteristics of each season: the seasonal variation of undernutrition; identified risks — climate-related and other (e.g. malaria); staple food price fluctuations; access to water etc.
It is easy to use at both community and macro level, enabling comprehensive information collection in a short time. It is essential for planning seasonally sensitive interventions, enabling stakeholders to identify the times of year in which particular risks are heightened and so plan accordingly.
Action Against Hunger has been working in partnership with national governments in Mali in Niger, to develop tools based on Geographic Information Systems (GIS) since 2009. Here a significant proportion of the population in the region are pastoralists, whose livelihoods are based on inter-seasonal movements closely linked to the availability of water and pasture. The region is characterised by low population density and pastoralists often move vast distances in search of pasture. These factors combined with high rainfall variability, mean that conventional monitoring systems are redundant.
The remote sensing tools currently under development monitor both surface water and biomass. When combined with analysis of movement of pastoral populations, Action Against Hunger is able to assess pastoral population vulnerability at a regional scale and make an important contribution to early warning in the region. The GIS tools will also enable Action Against Hunger to understand the potential adaptive strategies of livestock breeders and anticipate potential future crisis spots thereby supporting vulnerability analyses and optimising geographical targeting in the region.
Without cash, households are less likely to be able to overcome the adverse consequences of seasonality, so fighting seasonal income fluctuation is critical. One way of doing this is to promote off-season strategies to boost household food and income generation during periods of scarcity. Action Against Hunger has set up health gardens in which women grow vegetables in Burkina Faso, Niger and Mauritania. Whilst the primary aim of these health gardens is to boost dietary diversity (particularly of children under 5), in the best case, participants are also able to generate some additional income in the off-season.

Action Against Hunger is calling for an innovative approach in addressing seasonal hunger. What does this approach look like?

Seasonality is integral to livelihoods for the majority of the world’s poor; their lives and livelihood options revolve around the seasons. So, as a starting point, governments and NGOs need a thorough understanding of the ways in which seasonality interplays with the underlying causes of undernutrition. Detailed seasonal analysis will enable national governments, donors and other stakeholders to better understand the seasonal nature of undernutrition and implement appropriate policies and practices to build communities’ resilience to nutrition crises. 
Action Against Hunger is calling for governments to build a seasonal perspective into their poverty reduction and resilience building strategies. At minimum, governments need to scale up seasonal social protection and pre-position health and nutrition stocks in risk prone areas well before the onset of the lean season.  A flexible long-term perspective is essential; attempts to use short-term humanitarian funding alone to address seasonality are futile. Financing mechanisms must facilitate the integration of humanitarian response into development funds, and must be flexible enough to allow practitioners to adapt their activities to suit an evolving context, with rapidly changing needs.

Photo credits:  © S.Hauenstein Swan