Threat of malnutrition dire in Africa’s Sahel region due to increasing food shortages

A child is screened for malnutrition at a UNICEF-supported nutritional centre
A child is screened for malnutrition at a UNICEF-supported nutritional centre in Koubigou, a site for internally displaced persons in eastern Chad. UNICEF Image © UNICEF Chad/2011/ Esteve

It’s not a tsunami or an earthquake – it is a predictable emergency. UNICEF estimates more than a million children under five will need to be treated in feeding centres for severe malnutrition in the Sahel region of Africa. It is a staggeringly high number, and there is little time to prepare.  Report by Martin Dawes, DAKAR, Senegal.

Extreme food insecurity

The situation is extremely dire for children in many parts of the Sahel region of West and Central Africa. Due to poor rains and the resulting restricted harvests, entire populations are now vulnerable. In surveys carried out over the summer and autumn by UNICEF nutrition teams, seven of the eight countries showed pockets with elevated rates of global malnutrition for children under five. The driest parts of Chad and Mauritania had levels that put them into the category that requires an emergency response.

With an estimated 330,600 children under age five at risk of severe and acute malnutrition in Niger, the government has issued an alert saying more than half of the country’s villages are vulnerable to food insecurity. Other countries and regions where children are expected to require specialist treatment in clinics are northern Nigeria, the north of Cameroon, Burkina Faso, Mali and northern Senegal.

Unprecedented response needed

“This children’s crisis is going to be immensely challenging,” said UNICEF’s Regional Director David Gressly. “We do not issue such warnings lightly, but the scale demands an appropriate response that needs to start now.”

UNICEF is preparing to meet what it describes as a “huge challenge” and is already ordering therapeutic foods and distributing emergency stocks.

“A tragedy will be averted only by an unprecedented effort in the Sahel,” stressed Mr. Gressly. “This will involve making sure that professionals are on the ground with the right supplies and that enough is done to contain the threat of opportunistic diseases amongst the weakened populations.”

A mother attends to her severely malnourished child
A mother attends to her severely malnourished child at an inpatient feeding centre in Mao, Chad. UNICEF Image © UNICEF Chad/2011/ Esteve

What is going to be required to save lives is the sweet, peanut-based therapeutic food known as ‘Plumpy Nut’, enough nutrition professionals in the field to work the feeding centres, and a string of other interventions that bring more food into communities and ensure that opportunistic diseases do not get a chance to kill large numbers of people who are reduced and sick. As families move to look for food, there is also going to be a need to ensure that children are not at risk of exploitation or trafficking.

With teams in all the countries of the region, UNICEF is at an advantage and can reach the most vulnerable, given the resources. However, the organization urgently needs an initial $65,700,000, primarily for nutrition and health interventions and supplies.

Help protect children

Stay informed

Add value to your inbox!
Sign up to keep up to date on what's going on around the world.