UNICEF races to prevent a major food crisis in the Sahel 

UNICEF races to prevent a major food crisis in the Sahel

UNICEF is racing to prevent a second major food crisis in Africa in less than a year. Report by Chris Niles

VIDEO: 15 February 2012 – UNICEF Regional Director for West and Central Africa David Gressly discusses how UNICEF is responding to the looming food crisis in the Sahel.

World attention was focused last year on the Horn of Africa, where drought and instability left more than 10 million people in need of life-saving assistance. Today, a similar crisis, although one of lesser proportions, is emerging in the Sahel region of West Africa, south of the Sahara Desert.

There, an emergency response will be required to treat over 1 million children under age 5 expected to suffer from severe acute malnutrition – a potentially fatal condition – in 2012.

“What’s important to know is that malnutrition can kill. With a million children at risk we need to act quickly and decisively to provide treatment to those children,” said UNICEF West and Central Africa Regional Director David Gressly.

UNICEF supply warehouse in N'Djamena, workers prepare boxes of ready-to-eat therapeutic food
At a UNICEF supply warehouse in N'Djamena, workers prepare boxes of ready-to-eat therapeutic food for distribution to the Sahel belt of Chad. Therapeutic food provides essential nutrients to severely malnourished children. UNICEF Image © UNICEF/NYHQ2011-2207/Esteve

Ringing alarm bells

Alarm bells began to ring last year when a lack of rainfall provoked a severe drought in many parts of the Sahel, a region that stretches across eight countries in West Africa. The worst affected is Niger, where nearly 331,000 children under age 5 are already suffering from severe acute malnutrition.

UNICEF is working with partners in each of the affected countries to mobilize responses. These include everything from shipping therapeutic food to hiring extra staff and ensuring clean water supplies so that children, already weakened by malnutrition, do not die from malaria or cholera.

“The key is to get ahead of the crisis. We have the initial preparedness already complete, and the first response is now underway,” Mr. Gressly said.

Added pressure

UNICEF-supported therapeutic feeding centre in Mao, Chad
Women sit with their acutely malnourished children at a UNICEF-supported therapeutic feeding centre in Mao, Chad. UNICEF Image © UNICEF/NYHQ2012-0046/Asselin

The political crisis in Libya has added to the pressure on the Sahel, increasing violence and arms trafficking – particularly in Mali, Mauritania and Niger – and forcing many expatriates to return home.

“It’s causing insecurity, which is causing displacement and refugee movements, so that is causing a second crisis in this region, which is complicating the work and requiring its own response,” Mr. Gressly said.

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