LONDON (AlertNet) - The world must act now to save thousands of children at risk of dying from malnutrition in Chad, an aid agency has warned, adding that the window for helping is rapidly closing.
The U.N. children’s agency UNICEF said its treatment centres had seen a sharp increase in very young children with life-threatening malnutrition.
“We are no longer on the brink of disaster - it is already here and will worsen in the coming weeks,” said UNICEF UK's Deputy Executive Director Anita Tiessen following a trip to Chad.
“The message we kept hearing was act now or lose lives. There is a huge sense of urgency.”
Across the country an estimated 127,000 children are malnourished but the number is likely to be revised upwards to 150,000. In Eastern Chad one in 10 children with malnutrition is dying, according to UNICEF.
Chad lies in the Sahel region where at least one million children are at danger of dying of malnutrition because of a major food crisis, UNICEF says.
A combination of drought, falied crops, insect plagues, high food prices and conflict has left some 15 million people facing food insecurity in the Sahel – a semi-arid belt of land south of the Sahara.
In Chad, the agency is rushing to increase the number of child nutrition centres from 235 to 435 before the onset of the rainy season in June or July when many roads will become impassable. It plans to bring in 400 Chadian paramedics to staff the centres.
Tiessen said she had been particularly moved by the courage and persistence of mothers who walked up to 50 km (30 miles) in temperatures of over 40 degrees to get their children treatment.
“It was heart-wrenching. You see how desperate mothers are for care,” added Tiessen who visited the eastern regions of Ouaddi and Wadi Fira.
“A lot of these kids just looked so much younger than they actually were.”
Although far more children need treatment in Niger, Tiessen said the crisis was probably worse in Chad because the country’s health system was so weak. Health centres may exist on paper but many are run down or were destroyed in fighting.
Most of the children being brought to the clinics are under two. The first two years are critical as poor nutrition in early life can cause stunting and permanent mental impairment.
At the clinics children get high-protein syrup, Plumpy’nut – a peanut paste, fortified milk, deworming tablets, vitamin A and antibiotics for respiratory infections.
Tiessen said her message for the international community would be to “give money”.
UNICEF, which has asked for $18.7 million to respond to the crisis in Chad, is short by $5.9 million, but these amounts are likely to increase when it revises its figures in June.
“The plans are in place. People know what to do but they need more money to roll it out. The need is absolutely there,” Tiessen said.
“There’s a window of a month before the rains come. It’s a critical period. It’s going to get worse before it gets better.”
Tiessen said they needed money for “nuts and bolts stuff” - doctors, nurses, Plumpy’nut and stethoscopes.
The crisis is likely to peak in June and July.
Tiessen said her visit had brought home to her the impact of climate change in the region. Rains are not just poor but erratic, making it hard for people to predict when to plant.
“This area borders the Sahara. You could just see it was becoming increasingly inhospitable and uninhabitable. Absolutely you see the impact of climate change,” she added.
“Everybody’s prediction is that people will start moving south which will put pressure on other areas.”
Another factor contributing to the food crisis in Chad has been the upheaval in neighbouring Libya. Many Chadian migrant workers who used to support their families back home were forced to flee Libya last year.
Tiessen said the east of the country had also seen grain imports from Libya dwindle, meaning even people with money could not buy what they needed in local markets.
It takes four days for supplies to reach the east of the country from Chad’s capital N’Djamena in the west, but only two days from Libya.