At a medical clinic outside of Bol, a town in Chad’s Lac Region, I recently met Adama Abdulai—a 30-year-old mother of six. Her three-year-old son Abdou was being treated for severe acute malnutrition; at 17.6 pounds, Abdu weighed roughly the same amount as his nine-month-old brother. Report by Chris Tidey, UNICEF, N’DJAMENA, Chad (March 5, 2012).
Abdulai explained that, while she was able to exclusively breastfeed the infant, the family did not have enough money to feed Abdou or the rest of the older children properly.
“Maize is so expensive in the market now that we cannot afford food every day, so sometimes we eat and sometimes we do not,” said Abdulai. “Our farm yielded no harvest this year so we have nowhere else to turn.” Complicating matters further, Abdulai’s husband left the family in search of work when food prices began to rise last year. He has not been back since.
The arrival of hunger season
Experts and government officials are calling attention to an emerging food security and nutrition crisis in West and Central Africa’s Sahel region. The failed rains and poor harvests of 2011 are forecasted to make this year’s hunger season—a time when food stocks dwindle and families don’t have enough to eat—the most severe in years. In Chad, the hunger or lean season typically runs from April to September, but for many of the country’s poor, it has already arrived.
Many Chadian families have not been able to grow enough or earn enough to feed themselves. With 62% of Chadians living below the international poverty line of US$1.25 a day, this has the makings of a life-threatening crisis for thousands of families, and for children in particular, who are most vulnerable to the devastating health complications linked to malnutrition.
Malnutrition, which is life-threating on its own, also leaves children at greater risk of opportunistic diseases such as diarrhea and skin and respiratory infections. UNICEF estimates that more than 127,000 children in Chad will require treatment for severe acute malnutrition this year. Global acute malnutrition (GAM) rates in the Chadian Sahel, which chronically hover around emergency thresholds, are expected to further deteriorate in 2012.
UNICEF Chad Deputy Representative Marcel Ouatarra confirms that it is Chad’s most vulnerable who are being hit hardest. “Situations like this, where insufficient food stocks drive market prices at 100 and 200% increases, have a devastating and disproportionate impact on the poor,” said Ouatarra. “These are families who already have limited access to basic health care and chronic levels of malnutrition. The slightest shock to food availability can be life threatening.”
Less to go around
The dire financial straits for many Chadian families have also been compounded by the return of tens of thousands of Chadian nationals who had previously been working in Libya before the conflict there. Their return and subsequent loss of remittances means more mouths to feed and less money to go around.
And Myriam Moustapha, whose daughter Zenaba, 2, is also being treated for severe acute malnutrition, says that market prices continue to rise. According to the World Food Program (WFP), Chadian families are already becoming more indebted and have begun selling personal possessions to cope with the loss of remittances from Libya.
UNICEF is seeking US$18.8 million in funding to continue its efforts to meet the growing needs of children in Chad. UNICEF’s response plan includes the treatment of more than 127,000 cases of severe acute malnutrition among children under age five, reinforcement of the nutrition surveillance system, control of micronutrient deficiencies, and promotion of appropriate infant and young child feeding practices. UNICEF also aims to scale up livesaving immunisations and vitamin A supplementation for two million children.
The situation is grave, but by acting now, lives can be saved.
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