BAMAKO, Mali – Fighting in northern Mali is hampering aid workers’ efforts to reach those in need of relief and has caused food prices to skyrocket, exacerbating an existing humanitarian crisis in the region that requires urgent funding, aid agencies say.
Donors have pledged $455 million to finance the African-led military mission that is being hailed as successful, but there is a shortfall in humanitarian money – at the same time that there is an increase in need.
So far this year, only two percent of the $373 million required for humanitarian relief – as part of a consolidated appeal from the U.N. and aid agencies – has been received. The 2012 appeal was also underfunded.
"We need to make sure the 2013 appeal for humanitarian assistance in Mali is fully-funded,” said Ilaria Allegrozzi, Oxfam's Policy and Campaigns manager for Mali. “The appeal for 2013 has only recently been launched but we are concerned that those who have pledged funds keep their promises.”
“We are expecting an increase in humanitarian needs as we reach isolated populations," she added.
Some 35,000 people have been uprooted from their homes since January, when French and West African forces began pushing back armed Islamist groups in towns such as Mopti, Gao and Timbuktu, according to the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA).
In total, some 227,000 people are internally displaced in Mali while 144,000 have fled to camps in neighbouring Niger, Burkina Faso and Mauritania. An estimated 4.3 million people need humanitarian assistance, OCHA says.
While the U.N. appeal is expected to gain momentum, aid workers want to make sure the humanitarian crisis is not overshadowed by news about the military intervention.
“The funds committed to the consolidated appeal for 2013 are quite low, but it is early in the year," said Niek de Goeij, Emergency Response Coordinator for Catholic Relief Services (CRS). "If the shortfall remains high, we could see a worsening humanitarian situation."
"The focus has recently been on the military side of things, but we're hoping that might change as the situation stablises and people become more aware of the humanitarian impact," he added.
CRS is helping displaced people in the Malian capital Bamako – as well as in neighbouring camps and other parts of Mali – with food distribution, sanitation and monthly cash distribution.
INFLATION AND FOOD SHORTAGES
But aid agencies face challenges as they try to reach those in need of assistance as fighting has blocked key routes into affected areas. Relief workers are still unable to use the road between Douentza and Gao due to mines and other explosives and the border between Algeria and Mali remains closed, restricting humanitarian access as well as blocking key trade routes.
"The conflict worsened the humanitarian situation and limited our ability to access conflict-affected areas. The access situation is improving but there are still obstacles, particularly in terms of assessing the needs of isolated populations," said Allegrozzi.
Even before the recent surge in fighting, many Malians were suffering following chronic food shortages last year. Some 4.6 million people were affected by the 2012 food crisis.
"People in the Gao area were already vulnerable due to last year's food security crisis. They had to recover from that and they have been struggling,” said Allegrozzi.
“There's not much money circulating in Gao – food prices are becoming unaffordable. The main market was still closed four days after the initial air strikes,” she added. “Rural markets were closed down. Pastoralists were unable to sell their animals for cash. People have exhausted their coping mechanisms and some are selling assets and taking on debts."
Allegrozzi said food prices have shot up by as much as 20 percent in Gao and the surrounding area after Tuareg and Arab traders, who served as key links in the food supply chain, fled fearing reprisal attacks in the wake of the conflict.
Locals agree that they were already facing financial hardship but the fighting has made things worse.
"People were struggling financially last year," said Lael Coulibaby, a priest from a village near Gao who fled to Bamako in the wake of the conflict.
"Then we had to leave our homes due to the attacks, and we paid high fares for transport to Bamako. Bus companies asked for double or triple the usual fares. And now in Bamako we have to contend with high rents and the kind of costs of living associated with life in a big city," he added.
Meanwhile, many of those who fled the fighting and are sheltering in camps, either in neighbouring countries or in other areas of Mali, face the prospect of not being able to return home for a long time.
"CRS is supporting refugees in Burkina Faso, Niger and Mali and when they are ready to go back to the north, we're ready to help them," said de Goeij.
"But the potential repercussions are high for displaced Arab and Tuaregs who want to return home. In particular, many Tuaregs don't feel it will be safe for them to return to their homes anytime soon. Some of those we spoke with have said their houses were safe in the initial months following displacement, but that they have since been destroyed."
If humanitarian funding remains low, key services in the camps might suffer, particularly if camps designed for transit purposes are used on a longer-term basis, said de Goeij.