Sahelian Food Crisis: Portraits from Niger and Mali

Two days ago, UNICEF spokesman Patrick McCormick stated that next week will likely see the “peak of admissions of children suffering from severe acute malnutrition into centres across the Sahel.” As he pointed out, the crisis is exacerbated by a number of factors, including locusts, the armed conflict in northern Mali, and human displacement from war and drought.

In Niger, described as the “worst affected country” in the Sahel by McCormick, some 161,000 children under five years old had severe acute malnutrition based on a survey taken at the beginning of July.
In Chad, the agency has seen the monthly caseload doubled compared to 2010, with 630 children under five admitted to treatment centres.
The next few weeks will be “critical to see whether we can keep things under control and the funding coming in to treat the children with the special food they need which is incredibly expensive”, said McCormick.

Deutsche Welle profiles a program in Niger that is trying to make a difference amid desperation:

Because of the drought in the Sahel, oxen and cows have hardly anything to eat. [The German NGO] Welthungerhilfe buys the weakest cattle from the farmers at a price which they would never get if they went to market. In and around [the village of] Yatakala these animals now end up in cooking pots and save human lives.

Willi Kohlmus is Welthungerhilfe’s regional director for Africa. He says they are trying to do everything they can to stop people leaving the area, because that would be the worst that could happen. “It would mean they would stop growing crops and the next harvest would also be a disaster. That in turn would mean more dependence on foreign aid, in refugee camps,” he warns.

The strain of displacement is visible in Mali:

Thousands of families in Bamako and other cities are facing the same challenge: how to accommodate and care for dozens of extra relatives, mostly children, when they are already struggling to cope with high food prices and too little income. Conflict across the north has displaced some 70,000 Malians, who are now mainly living in Bamako and Mopti, an inland port on the Niger River in central Mali.
The country is being squeezed on economic, political and military fronts. “We’re fighting a lot of fires at once here,” said Information Minister Hamadoun Touré. With formal sector unemployment at 30 percent in good times, investment in the mining sector down, the bulk of multilateral and bilateral development aid suspended, and zero tourism activity, the country could be on its way to a “complete economic standstill”, said one seasoned Malian development worker.

Refugee flows out of Mali have increased hardship in neighboring countries.

Some Malian pastoralists are also finding the current situation unsustainable:

Hundreds of pastoralists in the Mopti Region of central Mali are stuck between floodplains to the south and armed Islamists and rebels to the north. They are used to the hardship of successive droughts across the Sahel, but with little or no aid for their animals and severely limited access to pasture, many are becoming desperate as their livelihood and way of life becomes increasingly untenable.

“It’s all over – it’s finished,” Ibrahim Koita, head of the Society of Social Welfare in Mopti Region, told IRIN in the capital, Bamako, where he is trying to pressure donors for more aid.

Aid is coming in – Canada recently pledged $10 million – but the situation remains grim.

Cholera in the Sahel

News of an outbreak of cholera in Islamist-held Gao, northern Mali (map), has focused some international attention on the problem of cholera across the Sahel region. You can read about cholera’s causes, symptoms, and treatments here.

UNICEF (via VOA) released a statement this week expressing concern about the recent uptick in cholera cases in the western Sahel sub-region:

Since mid-June, the number of people affected by the deadly highly infectious water-borne disease has shot up in the Sahel, especially in Niger’s regions bordering the Niger River, where the Ministry of Health reports nearly three times as many cholera patients over the first half of 2012 compared to the same period last year.

Niger is home to about 400,000 children who are expected to require life-saving treatment for severe malnutrition this year.

Cholera is a recurrent threat throughout the Sahel. Last year, over 67,000 cholera cases were reported mainly around the Lake Chad Basin countries (Chad, Cameroon, Nigeria), with 2,153 deaths and an average case fatality rate of 3.2 per cent.

But this year, the outbreaks appear to be concentrated further to the west around Niger and Mali, where its impact is aggravated by massive displacement of people fleeing the conflict in northern Mali and puts more strain on the children already affected by an acute nutrition crisis. While cholera cases appeared in Cameroon, Niger and Nigeria earlier this year, several other Sahel countries are now facing significant risks, with a sharp increase of cases expected with the onset of the rainy season.

As IRIN summarizes, the number of cases in parts of the Sahel, such as the Lake Chad basin, is lower than it was in 2011, but in Mali and Niger the number is set to rise between August and December, which is peak cholera time.

Decreases in cases this year in countries like Chad and Guinea are due to a combination of acquired immunity, prevention methods, and vaccines.

The Red Cross has worked near Gao to prevent the spread of cholera there, supporting “a treatment centre set up on the spot by the health authorities to prevent the disease from spreading…Local radio stations have begun to broadcast warning messages and recommendations, and Mali Red Cross volunteers are going door to door to distribute treatment products and water.” The Islamist group the Movement for Unity/Tawhid and Jihad in West Africa (MUJWA) has also reportedly “told people not to drink the river water or bathe in it in a bid to contain the outbreak.”

Nevertheless, ongoing violence in northern Mali between various rebel groups could complicate efforts at prevention and treatment, potentially allowing the disease to spread. Cholera’s spread would add to the burdens Mali, Niger, and other countries in the sub-region already face, including displaced persons and lack of food. UNICEF, the Red Cross, and other organizations are stepping up their efforts to monitor and contain outbreaks, but the present chaos in northern Mali may well work against them.