Balbala — Successive years of poor rains have eroded the coping mechanisms of pastoralists in Djibouti's rural regions, even as high food prices and unemployment rates afflict the country's urban areas. These factors are increasing the vulnerability to food insecurity and spurring migration.
The area of Balbala, about 12km outside of Djibouti City, has become home to families fleeing both harsh conditions in the countryside and dwindling livelihood opportunities in the city.
"What we need most is food"
Awale Farah, 65, migrated with his family of seven from the rural Ali Sabieh area, near the southern town of Dikhil, to Balbala three months ago. Dikhil lies along the border with Ethiopia and has a large number of migrants, complicating access to scarce basic resources there.
Farah says that back in Ali Sabieh, residents are moving closer to the Ali Addeh refugee camp, hoping to obtain some of the assistance meant for the camp's 16,778 refugees. "I don't know how they are getting along. What we need most is food," he said.
At present, about 70,000 people in rural Djibouti are food insecure. More than 60 percent of household food supply is being met by food assistance in the northwest pastoral zone, according to an October-to-March 2013 food security outlook by the Famine Early Warning Systems Network (FEWSNET).
In the southeast pastoral border area, "households are marginally able to meet minimum food needs only through accelerated depletion of livelihood assets and adoption of unsustainable coping strategies such as charcoal sales," the outlook says.
The areas most affected by hunger include Obock in the north, Dikhil and Balbala. According to 2010 figures, 42.9 percent of the children in Obock showed signs of wasting. In 2006, Djibouti ranked second in the world for prevalence of wasting in children under five, at 21 percent.
But life in Balbala is not easy, either. "The situation here is very hard. Sometimes we get money from family members in town," Farah said. "In Dikhil, at least we had livestock that would always provide us with food." Even so, many pastoralists have lost their livestock to the successive droughts.
Today, I left at 4am to go and look for work and came back home with nothing. There are days when we eat nothing
To cope, Farah has split up his family - two of his children are staying with relatives in Djibouti City.
Unemployment and high prices
Meanwhile, a lack of jobs is causing city residents to migrate to peri-urban areas such as Balbala.
Abdillahi Djama Abdiguedi's family moved to Balbala from Gagada, an area closer to the city where rent cost them 5,000 Djibouti francs (about US$28.20) per month.
"Here, we pay nothing," he said. "Most of the people around here moved from the city."
Abdiguedi works as a casual labourer every morning, heading to town to search for work at construction sites. "Today, I left at 4am to go and look for work and came back home with nothing. There are days when we eat nothing," he said. "The children have forgotten what milk is."
Meat prices have increased from 800 francs to 1,200-1,400 francs, notes FEWSNET.
Water is also more expensive. At present, a jerrycan of water sells for 150 francs, up from 50 francs in 2011, according to Balbala residents. "The water companies say that the water is more expensive due to the high cost of fuel required to bring it in," said a resident.
FEWSNET cites high unemployment, which stands at 48 percent, and high staple prices as reasons for poor urban households' acute food insecurity, which it estimates will remain at crisis levels up to December.
About 90 percent of the land in Djibouti is arid and the ecosystem fragile; the country also has few natural resources. These and other factors force Djibouti to rely heavily on food imports.
Improving child survival
Food insecurity and drought are contributing to high rates of malnutrition among children, according to Mohamadou Bachir Mbodj, the chief of child survival and development at the UN Children's Fund (UNICEF) office in Djibouti.
Also contributing to child malnutrition are low rates of exclusive breastfeeding. A 2010 survey found that, while 98 percent of nursing mothers in Djibouti breastfed their infants, only 24.5 percent did so exclusively, Bachir said. "The challenge is: how can we narrow the gap between the 98 percent and the 24.5 percent?"
For every 1,000 children born in Djibouti, 73 die before their first birthday, according to UNICEF. Good child feeding practices could help to lower these numbers. UNICEF is using 'grandmother counsellors' to encourage exclusive breastfeeding for the first six months as well as good weaning practices.
"When you do early initiation of breastfeeding, practice exclusive breastfeeding for six months and timely weaning, one can help to reduce infant mortality by up to 19 percent," he said, noting that longer-term approaches with longer-lasting funds that address underlying factors should be put in place to deal with malnutrition.
Safety nets and sustainability
"There is a need for more integrated strategies in water, agriculture, health and nutrition for sustainability," said Mario Touchette, the UN World Food Programme's (WFP) Djibouti representative and country director.
"For example, building small water catchments dams could help to improve the situation in rural communities. The access of health and nutrition services would also be important for them. There is also a need to provide alternative livelihood sources for rural-based populations, a majority of whom are pastoralists, but the environment is too challenging."
Touchette said aid organizations must strike a difficult balance between meeting the needs of increasingly vulnerable urban populations and focusing on rural areas where humanitarian needs remain high and many donors expect action. "If we provide more assistance to the urban areas, vulnerable people from rural areas might be more attracted to migrate to urban areas," he noted.
Still, food insecurity in urban areas is becoming a priority for WFP; Djibouti's population of about 800,000 is mainly urban.
WFP is also keen on helping the country develop a national safety net programme. "The safety net should include food-cash vouchers, supplementary feeding programmes and school feeding programmes. We could link it also to some professional training, for example," Touchette said. "The challenge is how to continue providing assistance without maintaining them [beneficiaries] in this cycle of perpetual assistance."
During the country's July-to-September lean season, WFP, alongside three local NGOs and the State Secretary for National Solidarity, provided food vouchers to some 3,000 households in Balbala. The coupons were distributed to women every week helping to supplement their households' food needs. This pilot programme received financial support from the UN Central Emergency Response Fund and the government of Switzerland.
Djibouti is among the Horn of Africa countries that endorsed the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD) Drought Disaster Resilience and Sustainability Initiative (IDDRSI ) after the devastating 2010-2011 drought. IDDRSI aims to help to end drought emergencies through long-term development initiatives focusing on the region's arid and semi-arid areas.
[ This report does not necessarily reflect the views of the United Nations. ]