Bamako/Dakar — Many more northern Malians are likely to face severe food shortages in the coming days and weeks if markets remain blocked by border and road closures, and humanitarian access remains limited, warn food security agencies.
The border with Algeria is officially closed as a result of the conflict that broke out on 11 January between Malian and French forces and Islamist groups that were occupying the north. As a result, the amount of food coming through has halved, according to the UN World Food Programme's (WFP) Vulnerability and Analysis Mapping Unit.
Algeria supplies almost all markets in Kidal Region in northeastern Mali with rice, couscous, oil and milk - the staple diet of northern Malians. While some trucks can get through, traders are reluctant to travel because of strict border controls and fear of further aerial bombardment, says the WFP analysis.
Mopti markets also supply northern regions with significant imported rice stocks and millet - availability of which has dropped by 40 percent in Kidal since January 2012. They also cost 120 percent more than the five-year average, according to WFP.
"Should the situation last, food security is foreseen to worsen severely in the coming days," says WFP.
Some Gao (central-northeastern Mali) and Kidal residents tried to flee across the Algerian border but were forced to return.
Algerian trucks are currently in Kidal selling off their remaining food stocks.
Kidal residents rely on weekly markets to buy and sell the bulk of their food, but these remain closed or have been severely disrupted. Many traders in Kidal and Gao regions closed their shops for fear of looting, say residents and aid agencies.
Aid agencies are worried the blockages could aggravate already unusually high food insecurity levels in the north: of the 1.8 million people in the north, 585,000 are food insecure and more than 1.2 million are at risk of food insecurity, according to a WFP food security assessment.
Local NGO Sol estimated families in Kidal have on average 10 days' worth of cereal supplies.
Couscous and imported rice prices in Kidal are not yet up significantly, but millet - eaten by northerners and also the staple food of southern Malians - is 120 percent of the five-year average in the north.
Difficult situation in Gao
Disruption to the Mopti-Douentza-Gao corridor has also led to severely diminished cereal supplies in Gao markets, says Action Against Hunger (ACF) - Spain's head in the capital, Bamako, Franck Vannetelle.
Gao residents are relying on cereal imports from Niger. "If the border with Niger closes then they will be completely cut off... It would be a disaster," Vannetelle warned.
Most herders have fled into the bush with their animals, leaving very little meat available in the market, he said.
And banks have shut down and most private money-lenders have stopped their activities, leading to a severe cash liquidity crisis in Gao, he said. Bombs destroyed a fuel depot in Gao town; residents fear fuel will soon run out, leaving them in darkness.
The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) will try to continue to supply fuel for water pumps across northern Mali's main towns, as it has done for many months now.
These factors, plus the cutting of all phone lines over a week ago, have left residents feeling vulnerable.
"For one week now, the phone network has been cut so no one can speak - we're cut off from the rest of the world, which frightens me," said Jafar Haïdara, a member of the regional youth council in Gao, through a satellite phone.
"Gao is like a no-man's land," he said. "Everyone is on edge. We have no idea what will happen tomorrow."
Following the 2011 drought and 2012 Islamist occupation, northern Malians were "already very vulnerable", said Vannetelle. The level of global acute malnutrition in Kidal Region was 13.5 percent as of October 2012, according to Doctors of the World (MDM) - double the rate in 2011.
If food dwindles further in Gao, residents are likely to head to Kidal in search of more, which means stocks could dwindle very quickly, said WFP. Kidal traders are also predicted to head to the rice-producing Timbuktu region to procure local rice, says WFP.
Food aid plans
Food security agencies are keeping a close watch on markets - ACF urges daily monitoring. WFP is completing rapid assessments of the food security situation in Gao and Timbuktu.
For ACF the priority is that those responsible do all they can to make sure the border with Niger remains open.
The organization also urges tight coordination among food security agencies, and a big push from all to secure access to the north.
WFP hopes to start deliveries in the north in the coming days - possibly by river - if access is confirmed, according to spokesperson Corinne Stephenson. The organization is also distributing food to displaced people in Bamako, Mopti and Ségou.
ACF, which works in western Mali, in and around Bamako, and in Gao, is considering food distributions in the north.
The WFP emergency operation for 2013 is only 6 percent funded, with a shortfall of US$128.6 million.
[This report does not necessarily reflect the views of the United Nations.]