Bamako/Sévaré — Hunger in Mali has reached crisis levels in the northern Kidal Region and has reached critical levels in Gao and Timbuktu regions, according to food security agencies and the government's early warning body.
One in five households in Gao and Timbuktu are facing severe food shortages, while in Kidal one in five households faces severe malnutrition and increasing mortality.
The situation is likely to worsen over the coming months as the lean season progresses, part of the usual seasonal deterioration in food security across the Sahel.
So far, 28 percent of the US$139 million appeal for food security and 17 percent of the $73 million appeal for nutrition have been committed by donors.
"The problem is that people are starting [the lean season] from an already highly deteriorated position. Assistance is not yet meeting needs, and even if security improves dramatically tomorrow it will take a long time for households to rebuild their livelihoods," Cedric Charpentier, West Africa market specialist for the World Food Programme (WFP), told IRIN.
In January, donors pledged $455 million to the African-lead international force in Mali, leaving some to fear the situation in northern Mali could be seen through a politico-military lens that overlooks the chronic vulnerability of ordinary Malians.
"There is very strong political will to intervene in northern Mali," said Frank Abeille, head of the NGO Solidarités Internationale in Mali, which is operating across the north. "What we need is to see a motivation that can also adapt to the reality on the ground: the real needs are humanitarian, not military."
Markets are still near-empty in Gao town and surrounding villages, and cereal prices are up by between 30 and 70 percent, according to the Famine Early Warning Systems Network (FEWS NET). The closed Algeria border and the flight of the majority of Arab and Tuareg traders in both Gao and Timbuktu have made products like pasta, oil, rice and sugar scarce.
While large cereal markets continue to function, smaller village-level markets have shut down, leaving rural communities and small traders - many of them women - destitute, according to Sally Haydock, Mali's WFP head. The availability of staple grains, sorghum, millet and corn is better than in February but still far from healthy, according to food aid analysts.
"We cannot say people are starving yet, but they are not eating as they should," said Oumar Hama Sangho, a Gao resident who has just finished assessing food security in the area.
"You go to the market, there is no fruit, no vegetables, meat or fish... There is only rice, millet and corn - mainly donated by the government or internationals. Old and young are surviving on these cereals, but it is not enough."
Mahamane Touré, coordinator of the German NGO Agro Action in Timbuktu, told IRIN insecurity prevented many women from planting their market gardens this year, so they have little to fall back on. "I have met many families who eat just one meal - of cereals - a day," he told IRIN.
Banking systems in Gao and Timbuktu have also been largely shut down since mid-2012, making large-scale transactions impossible. This has led suppliers to refrain from large deals.
While security has improved in much of Gao and Timbuktu, widespread acts of criminality and banditry on transit roads and on the outskirts of towns are also disrupting food markets.
In Kidal Region, both food and non-food items are largely unavailable in markets or are for sale at prices out of reach for the poorest people, said several NGOs. Kidal residents are highly dependent on markets, as they do not produce much of their own grain.
An ICRC food distribution in Gao's Chateau neighbourhood
"The region is already very fragile," said Wolde Gabrielle Saugeron, spokesperson for the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC). "People lack seeds to plant this year, and planting will be even more difficult for the displaced, while for herders, the lack of livestock services will pose severe problems."
"The situation changes daily and remains unstable across the north," he added.
ICRC is providing food to 30,000 people in Kidal - about one-third of them displaced - and is providing water to people in Kidal town. Doctors of the World (MDM) is providing healthcare and nutrition assistance.
IDPs share rations
Many internally displaced people (IDPs) who spoke to IRIN in the central town of Sévaré said they were sending part of their monthly WFP food rations back home to family remaining in the north.
Ahmed Maiga, an IDP at the "La Maison des chauffeurs" makeshift camp in Sévaré, had recently returned from his home in Gao to check up on family members there. "I came back because life is too difficult there - the markets don't exist. The shops are empty. Everything we had was looted... We send a large part of our monthly rations back home to the rest of our family," he told IRIN.
WFP has delivered food to 90,000 Malians in the north so far this year, working through international NGO partners, and is looking to scale-up its deliveries, but access remains a concern.
"One of our top concerns is for humanitarian access to be re-established. This would allow WFP to reopen its offices in order to assist a larger caseload and for our partners to operate fully," said Haydock.
A number of NGOs - Médecins sans Frontières, MDM, Action against Hunger (ACF) and Solidarités - have been running nutrition and other programmes in the north since 2012. They say gaining humanitarian access through negotiations with non-state armed groups was not too difficult in 2012, but access is now more problematic because of the absence of administrative authorities and the lack of a clear military chain of command.
ACF is helping moderately and severely malnourished children in Gao, Bourem and Ansongo, and plans to soon provide blanket feeding for up to 30,000 children under two years old. The agency is trying to figure out how to buy goods from local traders in order to support local businesses.
Countrywide, the number of Malians at risk of critical hunger this year is estimated to be 2 million, and 660,000 children under age five are at risk of severe malnutrition, though this latter estimate is based on figures from a 2011 survey.
ACF head Franck Vannetelle told IRIN its caseload of malnourished children has gone up in recent days, but this could also be linked to the fact that its mobile teams are again running, enabling the organization to identify more at-risk children.
WFP is scaling-up cash transfers for the south and is considering them for the north as well, but the pre-conditions - availability of food in markets, return of traders, re-opened trade routes, functional banks and better security - are not currently in place.
More detailed evaluations of food security in the north should take place soon. But obtaining information from health centres, families, market traders, officials, local NGOs, transporters and others and finding qualified staff who can undertake detailed, qualitative analyses of vulnerability and hunger remain challenging in the north.
[ This report does not necessarily reflect the views of the United Nations. ]