N'djamena — As malnutrition reaches emergency levels across the Sahel with at least one million children at risk, UNICEF's Executive Director Anthony Lake on a visit to the region today called for an urgent escalation of humanitarian efforts to stop the crisis and the cycle of disasters.
"This is a region always on the verge of a crisis. Families and children have been weakened from the drought in 2010 and 2005. Now there is growing insecurity in a number of countries with hundreds and thousands of people displaced, rising food prices, and a bad harvest," said Lake during a visit to western Chad today.
"Children find it harder now to bounce back and resist other health threats like polio, measles, meningitis, and cholera," he added. "The people of the Sahel are on the edge of a perfect storm with one million children at risk."
In preparation UNICEF has mobilised nutritionists and set up hundreds of nutritional rehabilitation centres across all eight countries of the Sahel where an estimated 15 million people are affected by the drought.
During the months of January and February tens of thousands of children were treated for severe acute malnutrition at nutritional rehabilitation centres that are filling up fast with the start of the 'lean season' - traditionally the worst time of the year in a harsh environment with difficult logistics.
The alarm bell was sounded on the looming nutrition crisis in the Sahel in December 2011 but the response has lagged behind the needs. This week UNICEF's National Committees in 36 countries launched a mass social media campaign to raise awareness about the emergency response and trigger action from governments about the plight of children in the Sahel.
With the Ministry of Health, UNICEF Chad has set up 261 nutrition rehabilitation centres and has plans to double the number in the next two months. Chad also has the highest numbers of polio cases in Africa and is second only in the world to Pakistan for the disease. Chad is also currently dealing with a meningitis outbreak.
UNICEF sees the current crisis as a new opportunity to tackle the causes of chronically high malnutrition in the Sahel by helping governments and communities build robust health systems, social services, social protection and support for sustainable livelihoods and behavioural change.
UNICEF has received nearly half of the US$120 million that it needs to save the lives of children and women suffering from the impact of these multiple threats - poor harvests because of drought, high food prices and insecurity in parts of the Sahel.
"This is not just about saving lives today. It's about preventing new emergencies tomorrow with the right kind of nutrition at the right time, especially for children under three and it's about boosting robust health systems so that we can prevent another tragic emergency and children do not have to end up in nutrition centres," Lake said.
"These are landlocked countries with tough climates and geography against them. They need help before and after these crises," he added.