GAROUA, Cameroon (Thomson Reuters Foundation) – Prolonged drought in northern Cameroon, an aspect of the changing climate that is affecting the whole Sahel region, has reduced food output, pushed up prices and increased the severity and prevalence of malnutrition among children, experts say.
During a visit to north Cameroon’s Garoua district by the U.N. Children’s Fund (UNICEF) early this month, women and health officials at the Lamudam village health unit said local people had yet to recover from the drought-driven Sahel food crisis of 2012 and levels of malnutrition were alarming.
“We receive cases of child malnutrition in this health centre regularly,” said Issa Houre, who runs the unit. “In January this year, for example, we had 33 cases and in May (there were) 49, and this is quite high in a small community of about 1,500 inhabitants.”
Marianna Abdoul, a 46-year-old mother of five who has been attending the centre to receive medical treatment for two of her children with acute malnutrition, said poor harvests and poverty made it difficult for her and her husband to feed their children well.
“Our farm yields are insufficient, making it difficult to feed (them) throughout the year. The food support we get from the health centre is not enough either,” she said.
Njakoi Henry, former country director of Heifer Project International Cameroon, told Thomson Reuters Foundation in Yaounde that rains in the north “are now shorter and less frequent”, adding that “pasture land is turning into desert”. “This is changing the way of life for the people in this region and many cannot feed themselves and their children… They need support to adapt and increase their resilience," he said.
In its latest update, issued on July 1, the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) warned, “the situation in the Sahel remains of great concern, mostly due to the impact of the 2012 crisis as well as previous recent crises.” Around 10.3 million people are food insecure this year and over 1.4 million children are at risk of severe acute malnutrition, it added.
UNICEF surveys carried out last summer and autumn showed that in seven of the eight countries studied, there were pockets of elevated malnutrition rates among children under five. The driest parts of northern Cameroon, Chad and Mauritania had levels that required an emergency response.
An estimated 330,600 children under five are at risk of severe and acute malnutrition in northern Cameroon, said the survey report, which was issued in March. Children are also expected to require specialist treatment in clinics in northern Nigeria, Burkina Faso, Mali and northern Senegal , it added.
The Cameroon government has issued an alert saying that more than half the villages in the region are suffering from extreme food insecurity. The health ministry said almost 40 percent of children under five were at risk of vitamin A deficiency, rising to over 62 percent in the north.
A 2012 report from Counterpart International said child malnutrition in the north had risen to 46 percent last year from 32 percent in 2004 – data in line with remarks by UNICEF Cameroon’s chief of child survival and development, Beshir Aounen, at a media workshop in Garoua on July 5.
“UNICEF estimates more than a million children under the age of five will need to be treated in feeding centres for severe malnutrition in the entire Sahel region of Africa,” he said. “It is a staggeringly high number and there’s little time to prepare. We need to assist these communities before the situation gets out of hand.”
Cameroon’s legendary former goalkeeper, Bell Joseph Antoine, told journalists that those tackling the crisis should coordinate their efforts. “I think intervention by international organisations and the government is good, but it would produce more positive results if they all work as a team rather than in dispersed ranks,” he said.
CALL FOR LONG-TERM SOLUTIONS
Several initiatives have been announced since then.
Public Health Minister Andre Mama Fouda told state radio that the government, UNICEF and the World Food Programme were providing food and vitamin supplements and de-worming medicine, and further action was planned.
In the coming months, targeted feeding will be provided for more than 46,000 moderately acute malnourished children under 5 years old and 12,000 pregnant and nursing women in the Far North where malnutrition is “serious to critical”, he said.
Benard Njonga, coordinator of the Association for the Defence of Collective Interest (ACDIC), a local NGO that supports rural farmer groups, said “cut and paste interventions” were not enough.
“While families in critical conditions today need emergency assistance, we also need to find long-term solutions to help people survive in an environment that is becoming more difficult to live in because of a changing climate,” he said.
“We think the women’s farming groups in these regions could be trained to use drought-resistant crops like cassava that can equally be transformed into flour to last throughout the year as well as sold to neighbouring countries if produced in large quantities to raise more income,” he said.
Cameroon’s commerce minister, meanwhile, has started closing down businesses that were caught breaking price agreements on food staples after complaints by consumer groups.
"We have deployed control brigades all over the country and especially in the north to check for businesses which are illegally raising prices of basic foods,” Luc Magloire Atangana Mbarga said in a statement. The brigades – made up of police and local business people - had orders to close culprits’ shops, “seize their goods and levy huge fines where necessary", he added.
Consumer groups say basic food prices have soared by up to 30 percent in recent months, significantly reducing people’s purchasing power.
Average annual income per head in Cameroon stands at just over $1,200, according to U.N. 2012 figures. Formal employment remains scarce and economic growth has slowed to 4 to 5 percent since 2010.
Elias Ntungwe Ngalame is an award-winning environmental writer with Cameroon's Eden Group of newspapers.