Millions starving as world responds slowly to disaster

Millions starving as world responds slowly to disaster

Matt Wade

March 31, 2012

Two-year-old Ouobra Kompalemba, who suffers from severe malnutrition and bronchitis, receives milk through a catheter, on March 19, 2012 at a hospital in Diapaga, eastern Burkina Faso.

Famine victim … Ouobra Kompalemba, 2, is fed milk through a tube in a Burkina Faso hospital. Photo: AFP

THE hunger season has come early to West Africa. It’s normal for villagers in the drought-prone Sahel region, which spans from Senegal to Chad, to cut back on meals as food stocks run low in the weeks before the September harvest. But an aid worker with Save the Children in Niger, Marianne Tounkara, says families have already run out of food.

Interactive: The food and nutrition crisis

”They are surviving on leaves and plants they would not use in normal times,” she said from her base in the Niger capital, Niamey. ”They are also decreasing the number of meals that they have in a day. But those coping strategies should be happening much later in the year.”

A lethal mix of sporadic rains, soaring food prices, regional conflict and chronic poverty has left more than 13 million people across the Sahel short of food. Aid agencies fear the crisis could soon turn into a catastrophe and are frustrated by the sluggish international response.

Ms Tounkara said Niger had received only a fraction of the funding agencies estimate will be needed to stave off a disaster.

”The government is doing its best … but it worries me in terms of an adequate response from the international community,” she said. ”Families need support to feed their children now.”

The vast landlocked nation of Niger is the worst affected with about 6 million people facing food shortages and 2 million of those in critical need of assistance. A study by aid agencies in two Niger districts found up to 90 per cent of people believed their food stocks would run out before the next harvest. But even in normal times Niger accounts for about one sixth of global deaths from malnutrition.

In neighbouring Mali, the democratically elected government was toppled in a military coup last week, and thousands of refugees have fled to Niger, adding to the crisis.

A flood of weapons into Mali following the recent downfall of the Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi has been blamed for boosting a long-running rebellion by Tuareg tribesmen and destabilising the government. The political instability threatens to hamper efforts to curb affiliates of al-Qaeda active in the region.

Meanwhile, about 3.5 million people in Mali need emergency help.

It’s estimated that another 1.7 million people are facing food shortages in Burkina Faso, 1.6 million in Chad and hundreds of thousands in Mauritania and Senegal.

Tristan Clements, a World Vision Australia emergency aid specialist who has worked in the Sahel, said the food crisis could peak in the next months. ”West Africa is an incredibly fragile region; it’s the poorest geographical region on Earth and is probably the most neglected region as far as international donors are concerned. It has huge challenges ahead,” he said.

”We already have 1.3 million children that are malnourished and 400,000 of them severe. Without significant intervention we do anticipate we’ll be seeing high levels of child deaths.”

Save the Children in Australia has called on the federal government to raise the alarm on the Sahel food crisis and lift its financial contribution to the aid effort. ”The Australian government responded generously to last year’s food crisis in the Horn of Africa, but now we need them to follow up with swift action and tens of millions of dollars to save lives in West Africa,” Save the Children’s director of emergency programs, Scott Gilbert, said.

”We’re not seeing starving babies yet, but we fear we might unless the Australian government and the international community act, and act now.”

The government contributed $128 million to the emergency response in the Horn of Africa last year and has so far pledged $10 million for emergency food aid in the Sahel.

The government’s aid agency, AusAID, also supports CSIRO scientists to work with farmers in Niger and Mali to improve farming practices where there is limited water.

The head of AusAID in Africa, Jamie Isbister, said emergency assistance in West Africa would need to be carefully managed to ensure fragile local food markets in the region were not impaired. ”It’s important for the international community to respond to both the immediate crisis but also to support the longer term food security needs in Sahel,” he said.

Last year’s famine in East Africa highlighted shortcomings in the international emergency relief system.

A report released in January by Save the Children and Oxfam on the response to the Horn of Africa food crisis said there had been a collective failure to take preventive action, as well as the failure to respond with adequate humanitarian aid when it was needed.

It concluded an earlier response could have saved millions of dollars and thousands of lives. Aid agencies don’t want to make the same mistakes as conditions in West Africa deteriorate.

”Food crises rarely take the world by surprise and yet all too often we see the international community fail to act quickly enough,” World Vision Australia’s chief executive, Tim Costello, said.

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