Dakar — The UN humanitarian coordinator for Mali says the country is in a deepening state of humanitarian crisis, with an additional 400,000 people expected to face food-insecurity by June.
Humanitarian assistance is drastically underfunded and the return of refugees who fled the conflict in 2012 and 2013 is making things worse.
The United Nations says 1.4 million people in Mali are currently in need of food assistance. This is up from 812,000 people in December 2013 and could rise to 1.9 million by June, as the lean season sets in.
Late and erratic rains last year, combined with ongoing conflict in the north of the country, meant poor crop harvests throughout much of the country. This has meant that the food stocks of many families are diminished.
"Mali continues to face very important humanitarian challenges in 2014," said David Gressly, U.N. humanitarian coordinator for Mali. "People have just gone through a very, very difficult time, particularly in the north, with the conflict, with the occupation. People are even more vulnerable than normal because of all of this... We're seeing, in particular, on the food side, continued food insecurity. So we're quite concerned."
Gressly said that an estimated half-million children under the age of five in Mali will suffer from moderate to severe malnutrition this year and 136,000 children will be severely malnourished. He said Mali could see a spike in its child mortality rate if these cases are left untreated.
There is also concern among humanitarian workers that the food security situation could further deteriorate as those displaced by the conflict return home.
"We're seeing increasing numbers of refugees coming home," said Gressly. "Half the IDPs have come home. That puts an additional burden on local communities as the numbers increase. It will take a while before those who are coming home can also contribute to production. The agricultural campaign is just now starting. So they can start, but we won't see any output from that until the end of the year."
The U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) says that nearly 200,000 internally displaced people, or IDPs, and refugees who fled to neighboring Niger, Mauritania and Burkina Faso, returned to the north between December and March.
Gressly said there could be an acceleration of that return in coming months, particularly if progress is made with ongoing peace discussions.
To help ease the burden of food insecurity in the country, Mali's government pledged to contribute 34,000 tons of cereal to food aid efforts this year.
Gressly said that this is quite a significant contribution, but is not enough.
OCHA reports that $568 million is needed to provide humanitarian assistance, including food aid, in Mali in 2014. As of the end of March, donors had only funded around 10 percent, or $56 million, of this amount.
Gressly said that this lack of funding is quite worrying.
"It's unfortunate, but there are many crises around the world right now - in South Sudan, Central African Republic, Syria, etc. - which seem to be drawing the resources that are also needed in places like Mali," said Gressly. "And the problem I see with that, not only the humanitarian impact, but if you look at the overall needs of Mali, trying to stabilize after the conflict of 2012, insufficient humanitarian assistance actually has a destabilizing impact as well."
Gressly said many organizations, including the World Food Program, have begun rationing their already limited resources. They hope to buy some time until more funding comes in.
He said the U.N. is now trying to raise additional money by advising donors that there is still a significant and pressing need for humanitarian assistance in Mali.