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Sahel Food Crisis: Chad's Perfect Storm

As well as tackling the immediate emergency, long-term solutions are needed to boost agricultural production and increase community resilience.
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An Action Against Hunger centre in Kanem, Chad. Photograph by Celeste Hicks.

Kanem, Chad:

As the food crisis affecting the Sahel region begins to take hold, admissions to a therapeutic feeding centre in Kanem, a region of north-western Chad, have jumped dramatically. Numbers of children suffering from severe acute malnutrition received by the Action Against Hunger centre in the town of Mao rose from 27 in February to 68 in March.

Therapeutic feeding centres are set up for children so weak that they are not able to eat fortified foods such as PlumpyNut or Plumpy’Doz and need round-the-clock medical care.

“Normally we would expect to see the peak of admissions in the lean season happening around July or August” Helene Kuperman, Action Against Hunger Co-ordinator in Mao, told Think Africa Press. “But this year it seems to be happening already, and that is not a good sign of what’s to come if nothing is done.”

Overall, it is thought that about 3.6 million people in Chad are at risk of hunger this year, following poor rains in 2011. The country has a shortage of an estimated 400,000 tonnes of cereal and grain, but has stocks of only 40,000 tonnes. The worst affected region is Kanem, but high levels of malnutrition are reported in a number of other regions such as Guera.

The perfect storm

Kanem’s problems are not only immediate, however, but long-term and structural. Its malnutrition rate has long been hovering at around 15% – the rate at which a situation officially becomes critical – but last year’s poor harvest was enough to push an already vulnerable population over the edge.

In the main town of Mao, one of the most isolated regions in the Sahel, it rained just nine times in 2011. Food production is low, and very little fresh food is available on the market. Most of the men in the region have left for Chad’s capital N’Djamena or Nigerian cities in search of work and although there are oases suitable for cultivation, access to them is complicated as they officially belong to the traditional Sultanate of Kanem.

Childcare and traditional medicine practices also play a role in malnutrition. According to ‘Beli’, a locally-founded female education NGO, breastfeeding often stops very abruptly when a mother falls pregnant or it is deemed inappropriate to give the baby colostrum – the most nutritious milk which is produced in the first few days after birth. And the use of traditional healers can be harmful: “If a baby is suffering from diarrhoea, the traditional doctors will sometimes burn the child’s anus. If they are coughing too much, they will burn the child’s chest, and if they’re vomiting continuously, they cut the back of the throat or pull out the baby teeth” says Achta Alli, from ‘Beli’. “It takes us many, many days to sit with the mothers and convince them that what they’re doing is not good for the child.”

Last year’s crisis in Libya has also had an impact. An estimated 90,000 migrant workers returned to Chad last year – many of them to the Kanem region. As well as adding further pressure on the region, the money that they were sending home to their families as remittances has now stopped.

“All these factors accumulate to create a perfect storm” said UNICEF’s Executive Director Tony Lake on a recent visit to Chad. “Malnutrition does not only kill children but it weakens them against other diseases. For example, Chad last year had the biggest per capita outbreak of polio in the world, and it’s also facing measles and meningitis.”

Preparing for a rainy day

Some degree of help is finally coming to Chad – food distribution through the World Food Programme and its local partners is starting in Kanem, and the government recently took delivery of 200,000 tonnes of Plumpy’Doz.

Health Minister Nahor N’Gwara says the government has opened a number of new treatment centres in Kanem and Mongo, especially for nomadic communities who are particularly difficult to access. Agencies such as ACF and Oxfam are working to nurse malnourished babies back to health, and a Sahel-wide appeal has been launched, although it is still only around 50% funded.

But with climate change and increasingly unpredictable rainfall patterns across the whole Sahel, solutions must also be found to boost agricultural production, and to make it less reliant on rainfall. Families need to find income-generating activities which will enable them to buy food on the market when their own harvests fail.

“This crisis has been compounded by the fact that the last drought was only two years ago (in 2009), and communities have simply not been able to recover” says Tony Lake. “Animals have died and stocks have been depleted. We have to think hard about putting systems in place to increase long term community resilience.”

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