28 February 2014

Central African Republic: Nation in Worsening Food Crisis

Fighting and the lack of infrastructure are making it almost impossible to get aid into the Central African Republic. After several weeks delay, a food convoy has just arrived in Bangui. Many more are needed.

Herve Massi has been waiting a full month for this moment - along with hundreds of thousands of other internally displaced people in the Central African Republic.

A father of two children, he has just received five kilograms of peas, 30 kilograms of cornmeal and one and half liters of oil from the UN World Food Program (WFP). "Without these supplies we would be lost. We can't secure enough food on our own because of the fighting," he told DW.

But these rations are not enough to feed a family.

"They'll last perhaps for two weeks if we mix them with some cassava. Most people don't have any money by any supplementary items. We appeal to the international community to send us some sugar and milk," said Massi, whose five year old son is already showing signs of nutrition disorders.

It is the third time in two months that Massi and the other internally displaced people have received food aid. The urgently needed relief only arrives intermittently in crisis-hit Central African Republic. On Tuesday (25.02.2014) a WFP convoy drove into the capital Bangui for the first time in weeks. The 100 or so trucks had been forced to wait in neighboring Cameroon before they were allowed to continue their journey to CAR under a heavily armed escort.

Herve Massi and his children have been waiting for food aid for weeks

Hundreds of thousands of people, like Herve Massi and his children, now live as best as they can in temporary shelter - in camps, churches, schools, mosques and at the airport. There they are protected by peacekeeping troops from the marauding militia. But the conditions in these makeshift camps are catastrophic - hardly any drinking water, far too few toilets and nothing to eat.

Half the country is waiting for food aid

"The main challenge is to get food inside the country," said Alexis Masciarelli from the WFP. Two weeks ago his organization had just 85 tons of rice left in its warehouse in Bangui. Under normal circumstances that would be food for just three days.

The reason for the delay in bringing in more supplies was 600 kilometer (372 miles) stretch of road that runs from Cameroon to Bangui.

Relief trucks arriving in Bangui after a delay of several weeks

"It is the only way in and out of the country. In January, the border was closed for us for three weeks. Since it has re-opened, there have been three convoys. So slowly there is food coming into the country, but it is not enough," said Masciarelli.

Even before the outbreak of the fighting in December 2013, some 1.3 million Central Africans were dependent on food aid to survive. That figure has since doubled to about half of the country's population of 4.5 million and continues to increase every day.

The reason is that since the outbreak of the fighting the farmers have been unable to till the land or harvest their crops. And so food is now scarce in Bangui. Most shops are closed because it is to dangerous for them to open. If a shop does open, their shelves are generally bare - there is no sugar or bread.

The few goods that are on sale are often very expensive. Bangui residents are more or less broke. Wages are not being paid any more and the banks are shut.

Rainy season heralds disaster

The UN relief organizations were not prepared for this catastrophe in the heart of Africa. The problems are about to multiply, said Masciarelli. If food supplies are not brought to outlying regions before the rainy season makes them inaccessible, then there is the danger of a terrible humanitarian disaster.

After conducting a survey, the WFP concluded that 90 percent of farmers do not have seeds for the next planting season. "So we are entering what is likely to be a very durable food and nutritional crisis," Masciarelli said. "We requested for the emergency operation, starting in January and finishing in August, $107 million (78 million euros) for WFP to respond to the emergency. It's not so much about receiving the food, but receiving it quickly," he said. Children are displaying the first signs of malnutrition.

The six month rainy season begins in April. That's when the roads become impassable. That's also when farmers have to sow seed for the next harvest. At the same time, the mosquito population - responsible for the transmission of malaria - rises. People suffering from malnutrition are more vulnerable to disease than those who are properly fed.

Time is running out in the Central African Republic both for those in need and the agencies trying to help them.

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