Dakar — Over 700,000 people could be displaced if military intervention goes ahead next year in northern Mali, according to preliminary estimates by humanitarian agencies, who stress that the numbers are just approximations.
This includes some 300,000 internally displaced Malians (a significant increase on the current 198,550) and 407,000 refugees (currently 156,819), most of them headed to Mauritania, Burkina Faso, Niger, Côte d'Ivoire, Guinea, Senegal and Algeria.
Over recent months humanitarian actors have been using risk and threat models to develop likely disaster scenarios, with a view to mapping out what their response might look like - an exercise fraught with difficulty given the uncertainties involved.
"It is almost impossible to predict what is going to happen where and when - everything is very broad," said Philippe Conraud, West Africa emergency coordinator with Oxfam, which is working in Mali, Mauritania, Niger and Burkina Faso.
Humanitarian country teams - made up of UN agencies and partners including some NGOs and the International Organization of Migration - have set out in a planning document four potential scenarios, ranging from a progressive deterioration of the situation in northern and southern Mali but with no military intervention; to Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS)-backed military intervention, which is estimated as of now to be the most likely scenario.
ECOWAS has been urging the UN Security Council to authorize a military intervention to retake northern Mali from the Islamist Ansar Dine militia, which controls swathes of territory alongside the Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO) and Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQMI).
The regional body has also opened talks with the some of the forces in the north. On 4 December, ECOWAS mediator and Burkina Faso President Blaise Compaoré led talks in Ouagadougou between Mali government representatives and those of Ansar Dine and the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA), a separatist Tuareg movement that initially captured key towns in northern Mali before being uprooted by Islamist forces.
In addition to mass displacement, potential humanitarian implications of military intervention could include inter-communal and/or inter-ethnic violence the possible reactivation of dormant terrorist cells in southern Mali and in the region; as well as deaths and injuries.
Inter-communal violence is not new to northern Mali, with Tuareg groups deeply factionalized through a succession of attempted rebellions. Currently militia groups are proliferating in the north and are expected to involve themselves in conflict. Earlier this year three prominent militias united to form the Northern Mali Liberation Front.
Destruction of infrastructure and restrictions in basic services in both the south and the north could take place; market prices are likely to be volatile; food insecurity and malnutrition rates could rise. Malnutrition rates in parts of northern Mali have doubled in one year, to reach 13.5 percent, according to NGO Doctors of the World.
Other potential outcomes include a restriction in humanitarian access; anti-ECOWAS protests; terrorist attacks in ECOWAS troop-contributing countries; mounting hostility towards UN agencies - depending on the role of the UN in military intervention; a proliferation of militia and south-defence groups; and the near-cessation of development activities.
A potential rise in human rights violations could also occur; while children are particularly at risk of recruitment and separation from their families among other violations.
Time to plan?
Advance knowledge that a military intervention is very likely means "we have time - lots of time to plan, so we can set up to at least reduce to a minimum the last-minute scramble that is involved in a reactive response," said Allegra Baiocchi, head of the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs in West Africa (ROWCA).
2013 Refugee estimates
Burkina Faso 110,000
Côte d'Ivoire 60,000
2013 Refugee estimates
By planning ahead, agencies can at least make donors aware of the potential need for a large-scale response in the Sahel again this year, and the crisis in Mali could continue to focus donor attention on the region, which is cyclically hit with food insecurity and malnutrition crises.
Some 18 million Sahelians were food insecure in 2012 and vulnerability for millions will carry through to 2013, say aid experts.
An appeal for US$1.6 billion to cover humanitarian needs in the Sahel in 2013 was released today.
Donors favour certainty
Now that scenarios have been discussed, agencies are developing potential operational responses, which need to be aligned with regional and government plans.
But planning a response based on a potential scenario is difficult as donors will usually decline to fund it.
European Union aid body ECHO, one of the principal responders to malnutrition in the Sahel this year, will not allocate money specifically to prepare for military intervention in Mali, said its West Africa head Cyprien Fabre. "We don't have a specific allocation to prepare for military intervention.... What we are trying to do is to enhance the capacity to respond to unmet needs now," said Fabre. ECHO recently directed an additional US$26 million to the Sahel.
Some NGOs have private funding, while the UN Children's Fund (UNICEF) and the World Food Programme in Mali have some funds to pre-position stocks for next year, "but it's hard for everyone to have the flexibility to do this," said Baiocchi.
"It is very difficult to prepare," said Germain Mwehu, International Committee of the Red Cross response coordinator in Mali and Niger, "but we are used to always adapting to evolving situations... We are ready if there is an intervention, to the degree that we can be."
Another concern is which actors are planning to respond to humanitarian consequences. ECOWAS Commissioner for Human Development and Gender Issues Adrienne Yande Diop told IRIN: "We have a mandate to treat those affected with some sort of aid... humanitarian priorities will be food, nutrition, water, health and shelter... We want to be effective and to reach people in need."
But this has alarmed many humanitarian actors who believe humanitarian and military intervention must be kept separate so as to not to muddy the humanitarian principles of neutrality and impartiality and put humanitarian staff - and populations in need - in danger.
"The ability of humanitarian actors, particularly NGOs, to stay and deliver, is predicated on their acceptance by communities and local authorities. Making sure they are viewed as being separate and independent to military intervention is essential," said Baiocchi. "As we have seen in other contexts, how we relate to an internationally-supported military intervention can pose serious dilemmas to humanitarians."
Political interventions usually range from peacekeeping to peace enforcement, to outright combat - the latter poses the most danger to humanitarian principles in the case of integrated missions.
Most agree more dialogue is needed. "If ECOWAS plans humanitarian actions, that is its right to do so, but it is the modality on the ground that is at stake and where separation is needed," said Fabre.
For regional humanitarian coordinator for the Sahel David Gressly, this is a chance "to test our systems". He told IRIN: "There are a lot of countries involved with this planning - getting a common sense of operating assumptions is challenging, though having clarity across the board on what we may have to face in 2013 is an opportunity."
[ This report does not necessarily reflect the views of the United Nations. ]