28 January 2013

Mali: Families in Northern Mali Fear Running Out of Food Supply

Photo: WFP/Justin Smith
A group of children wait on the fringes of the distribution center. (file photo)
  • Latest estimates indicate that household food stocks in and around Gao will only last few weeks.
  • Most markets and shops are closed, food supplies severely disrupted and stocks low.
  • Food prices have risen by nearly 20 percent in just two weeks.

Food is getting scarce in many of the markets in parts of the Gao region of northern Mali and stocks are likely to end in few weeks, according to Oxfam.

Communities have been facing shortages since last year's drought and conflict and will struggle to afford or even to find enough food to eat if the Algerian border and roads remain closed and the north remains inaccessible.

"Communities are effectively cut off and if the situation continues then food stocks in the area will only last few weeks. Things are set to get worse for people who cannot or do not wish to leave and have been living in incredibly tough circumstances for almost a year" said Philippe Conraud, Oxfam Country Director in Mali.

The situation is acute in rural markets, in areas where people depend upon their livestock, and where a large part of Northern Mali's population live. These markets, only supplied once a week, are no longer operating as usual and people are finding it difficult to sell their animals to get the cash they need.

Many traders have moved their remaining stocks from Gao to villages and communes outside of the town. Many have left Mali completely.

As current fighting moves north there is a growing fear that Gao will be the next center of conflict - forcing more people to flee their homes into areas where there will be limited access to food, drinking water and medical care.

A precarious future

They face a precarious future with few options of escape as the main public transportation services to the South and neighboring Niger has been suspended since the past 10 days.

"Most people left in the area are those who cannot afford to leave. If people are to receive urgently needed aid then humanitarian organisations need to be allowed into the conflict-affected zones. Borders with neighboring countries should be kept open and critical supply routes for food accessible. If help does not arrive soon then we may be seeing the start of a major humanitarian emergency," added Mr. Conraud.

Key findings of the Oxfam assessment:

  • The food crises in 2011-2012 meant that staple food trade flows from the south (Bamako, Burkina Faso and Niger) were severely disrupted as early as October - November 2011. Staple cereals, such as millet, have not been available on local markets for nearly a year, and had been replaced since early 2012 by rice, couscous and wheat flour, mainly from Algeria. Oil and sugar are also imported from Algeria. Following military intervention in early January 2013, these food supplies have once again been severely disrupted by the closure of the main road to the south and the Algerian border, and limited cross-border trade with Niger.
  • Many traders have moved and/or sold out their remaining stocks from Gao to villages and communes outside of the town. The majority has left Mali completely. For the first time since the conflict started, all the major traders of Gao are reported to have gone. They are directly - and possibly for the long run - affected by the current military operations.
  • The main markets in Gao town have been disrupted, and many others are closed. There were closed for four days following air strikes and are not well stocked. Gao three quarters of shops selling food are closed. These shops also supply rural markets in the area that are crucial for the survival of pastoralist communities - who are the vast majority of northern Mali's population- outside of the main cities along the Niger river.
  • Food prices have risen by nearly 20 percent since military intervention in early January. Before the intervention a 50-kilogram bag of rice cost US$34. In just two weeks the price has risen to US$41 and rice becomes increasingly rare.
  • There is very limited cash circulating in the local economy. The banking system has been shut down since armed groups took control of northern Mali last year. Traditional methods of bringing cash into the north, including remittances from family members that many residents depend on, are not functioning. Those with money live in fear of being robbed. Lack of money also means that pastoralists, whose only source of income is to sell small ruminants, have nothing to rely on. Gao was already classified as one of the most food insecure areas of Mali before the current military intervention and is one of the areas with the highest malnutrition rates in Mali. Malnutrition among children under five already stands at 15.2 percent , which is the emergency threshold set by the World Health Organization.
  • Livestock herders are keeping their animals further away from the town to limit the risk of theft, but access to pasture areas and surface water is limited because of insecurity.
  • Families usually buy most of their food, but their sources of income and purchasing power have diminished over the last year- in relation to rising food prices. - The presence of armed groups has meant that many sources of income have been disrupted, and people are not able to earn as much money as before. In addition, most of the traditional coping strategies, such as selling assets or going into debt, have already been exhausted and households have nothing to rely on.

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