UNICEF and partners prepare for the worst of the nutrition crisis in the Sahel region 

UNICEF and partners prepare for the worst of the nutrition crisis in the Sahel region

A time bomb is ticking in the Sahel.

April marks the beginning of the region’s lean season. It rains only once a year in the Sahel, an arid region that stretches across eight countries in West-Central Africa.

VIDEO:UNICEF correspondent Loch Phillipps reports on preparations to deal with the food and nutrition crisis in the Sahel region of Africa.

But last year it didn’t rain enough, and now a crisis is imminent.

An emergency at the horizon

Ten million people are already facing food insecurity.

“We estimate that there will be, in 2012, over a million children suffering from severe acute malnutrition,” said UNICEF West and Central Africa Regional Director David Gressly.  “What’s important to know is that malnutrition can kill.”

Many natural disasters strike without warning. The Sahel is different. This emergency is creeping over the horizon, the result of rising food prices, failed crops and the profound fragility of life in the region.

therapeutic food for distribution at a UNICEF warehouse
Workers prepare boxes of ready-to-eat therapeutic food for distribution, at a UNICEF supply warehouse in N’Djamena, Chad. UNICEF Image © UNICEF/NYHQ2011-2207/Esteve

When they can’t grow enough to feed themselves, families sell their livestock, making them even more vulnerable when the hunger season strikes.

Preparing for crisis

But a crisis that can be predicted is a crisis that can be prepared for.

UNICEF began to plan last year – buying and shipping large quantities of therapeutic food and medicine, hiring extra staff, and helping governments make preparations.

“April to June is when this will really start to build up as a crisis. So what we’re doing now is being in a position to do so when it does happen,” said Mr. Gressly.

“Basically we’re looking at three phases here,” he continued. “The response phase, the emergency response to deal with this increase in malnutrition in the eight countries we’re talking about. Secondly, building up safety nets in each of the countries, as has been done already in Niger to capture malnutrition we see this year, and probably we’ll see in future years. And the third is to deal with chronic nature of problem, building up resilience to this in the future and starting to deal with some of the underlying factors.”

Illia Saadou feeds her malnourished daughter, Fatchima, packet of ready-to-eat therapeutic food at the Routgouna health center in Mirriah, Niger. UNICEF Image © UNICEF Niger/2012/Asselin

Throughout these phases, UNICEF’s main focus will be to ensure that children receive not just food but appropriate therapeutic and medical treatment so that the crisis does not jeopardize their long-term development.

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