20 December 2012

West Africa: Malnourished to Remain Above One Million in 2013

Photo: Florian Lems/MSF-AUSTRIA
18 Years Old Ashta Mohamet and her daughter during a consultation by MSF nurse Jean Blaise Djedouboum at MSF's Ambulant Therapeutic Feeding Center (ATFC) in Koudiguine. Since April MSF runs a feeding programme in 11 health centers in Biltine district.

Dakar — Despite good rains across much of the Sahel this year, 1.4 million children are expected to be malnourished - up from one million in 2013, according to the 2013 Sahel regional strategy.

The strategy, which calls on donors to provide US$1.6 billion of aid for 2013, says fewer people are expected to go hungry in 2013 - 10.3 million instead of 18.7 million in 2012.

Harvests across much of the Sahel were fairly good this year following more steady rains, but vulnerability remain as the 2012 crisis, on the back of crises in 2005 and 2010, left many families heavily indebted, with severely depleted assets, and with no seeds to plant.

The number of malnourished children being targeted is rising partly because absorbing the 2012 shock takes time and food prices remain high; and because the illness is linked to health care services, caring practices and access to clean water, not just food security.

Another major reason why estimates have risen is because governments and agencies are widening the scope of nutrition surveys to include as yet un-assessed areas. This includes a larger proportion of northern Nigeria; and more thorough analysis in Senegal, Burkina Faso and Mauritania, which could each expect higher figures, said Manuel Fontaine, acting West Africa director of UNICEF.

"It is not that the problem is necessarily getting worse, but the extent to which we are able to see it is getting better, as we develop our capacity to do surveys," Fontaine told IRIN.

While 20,000 children in Senegal were estimated to be severely malnourished in 2012, this number is expected to double in 2013.

"It is not often understood that even with good rains, severe problems will remain for the Sahel," said David Gressly, humanitarian coordinator for the Sahel.

Production of rice, sorghum, corn and millet in 2012 was on average 18 percent higher than the five-year average in the Sahel, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization and the World Food Programme.

Niger malnutrition figures

Acute malnutrition has been above 10 percent in Niger every year since 2006. It ranged from 10.3 percent in 2006 to a high of 16.7 percent in 2010 and was 14.8 percent in 2012, according to SMART surveys.

Over the same period, chronic malnutrition ranged from a high of 50 percent in October 2006 to a low of 42 percent in November 2012.

Food insecurity is at the root of just one third of malnutrition cases, says the UN Children's Fund (UNICEF), with other drivers including poor health services, lack of clean water and poor infant caring practices.

In a good year in the Sahel some 230,000 children will die, either directly or indirectly, from malnutrition.

Since September 2012 SMART nutrition surveys have taken place, or are currently under way, in almost all the affected countries.

Malnutrition rates in northern Mali - already at record-highs - are expected to remain so or rise further.

Meanwhile, population growth across the Sahel means that the number of malnourished children will inevitably rise. "The population in Niger doubles every 25 years - so of course malnutrition will also increase," said Fontaine.

However, numbers may drop in some areas, including parts of Niger, where the government has improved its ability to deal with malnutrition.

2012 crisis not over

For Cyprien Fabre, head of the European Union aid body ECHO in West Africa, the 2012 crisis is not over. "The needs now are not covered. Health is under-covered, IDPs' [internally displaced persons'] needs in Mali are not covered. There are thousands of IDPs in Mopti and Bamako who have received nothing to date."

Host populations in Mali have also, for the most part, received very little, he said.

Stress context

Factors leading to stress are high food prices across the region; the situation in Mali, which has led some 200,000 Malians to be internally displaced and 200,000 to become refugees; and flooding that ruined thousands of hectares of crops in Chad, Niger, Nigeria and Benin.

While prices of staple grains have stabilized post-harvest, they have done so at high levels compared to 2009. The price of millet is 82 percent higher than the five-year average in Burkina Faso capital Ouagadougou, and 67-76 percent higher in northern Mali, according to WFP and the Food and Agriculture Organization.

Pasture coverage across much of the region remained weak, with severe implications for agro-pastoralists, a group whose needs are often overlooked by donors in crisis response.

The biggest needs are for Chad, followed by Mali, then Niger and Mauritania. Others include Burkina Faso, Senegal, Cameroon, Nigeria, and Gambia.

Some 70 percent of the US$1.6 billion appeal was met, with food security and nutrition coverage relatively good; but health was just 27 percent covered; education 16 percent; and water and sanitation just 50 percent, according to the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA).

UNICEF estimates that by the end of 2012 it and its many NGO partners will have reached 850,000 children, making the Sahel response its biggest nutrition programme ever. "The good thing is this means the foundations are there to continue to do this next year," said Fontaine. "The people, the data-gathering is in place, but the funding still needs to come in to purchase the RUTF [ready-to-use therapeutic food]."

But humanitarians worry of donor fatigue and many are concerned possible military intervention in Mali will distract donors from the chronic food insecurity and malnutrition crises in the region. "Sustaining funding for the broader Sahel crisis will be a challenge regardless of what happens next year," said Gressly.

Alain Cordeil, head of the World Food Programme (WFP) in Mauritania, voiced his fears. "If we only have political interest from donors for refugees, we will not solve the problems for this region... Without resources [in Mauritania] we cannot pre-position food... This could be very chaotic," he told IRIN.

With all humanitarian actors focused on resilience, humanitarians and donors must look beyond quick fix solutions, stressed Fontaine. "It is also up to us to make sure our interventions don't just feed today and not build for tomorrow."

[ This report does not necessarily reflect the views of the United Nations. ]

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