DAKAR (AlertNet) – Children in western Chad have started dying from malnutrition as a major hunger crisis threatening West Africa begins to take hold, an international charity has warned.
Child malnutrition rates have soared in the region of Kanem, which is now in the grip of a full blown emergency, Action Contre La Faim (ACF) said.
Kanem is one of the first areas to be affected by a looming crisis in the Sahel region where some 15 million people in half a dozen countries risk hunger in the coming months.
More than 2,000 children in Kanem were admitted to nutrition treatment centres in February alone, triple the number treated in December, according to ACF.
“For the people in Kanem the emergency is already here,” ACF spokeswoman Lucile Grosjean said.
“I was at a therapeutic centre and two children died because they arrived very late. They were in such a bad shape that it wasn’t possible for us (ACF) to save their lives,” she told AlertNet by phone from Kanem's main town of Mao.
Aid agencies have warned for months of an impending food crisis in the semi-arid belt south of the Sahara desert following drought and poor harvests.
The United Nations estimates at least 15 million people in the Sahel could be affected, including 3.6 million in Chad, 5.4 million in Niger, 3 million in Mali, 1.7 million in Burkina Faso and hundreds of thousands in Senegal, the Gambia, and Mauritania respectively.
More than a million children under five risk severe acute malnutrition, according to the U.N children’s fund UNICEF.
ACF, also known as Action Against Hunger, is urging donors to respond now to appeals by Chad’s government and aid groups for funds to run food distribution and nutrition programmes.
Cereal production in the country was 50 percent lower last year than in 2010, according to the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organisation.
“Chad is quite a forgotten country when it comes to international attention about the Sahel food crisis,” Grosjean said.
“People speak a lot about Mali and Niger when it is about hunger and only remember Chad in terms of refugees from Darfur who are in the east of the country,” she added.
LOSS OF REMITTANCES FROM LIBYA
The agency plans to help more than 20,000 children in Kanem and neighbouring Bahr el Gazal region.
Over 60 percent of the population in Kanem live in a permanent state of food insecurity, but their plight has been exacerbated this year by the loss of remittances from Libya and difficulties trading with northern Nigeria, ACF said.
More than 100,000 Chadian migrants working in Libya were forced to return home last year following the uprising that toppled Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi. Chadian families have lost a fifth of their income on average as a result.
An alternative source of income for people in Kanem – selling cattle to Nigerian traders for income – has also been cut off because the border has been closed following violence in the north of the country, Grosjean said.
Nigeria wants to prevent the Islamist sect Boko Haram from using neighbouring countries as bases to stage attacks.
The absence of trade and the lack of pasture for their livestock has left pastoralists in Kanem with no money to buy food for their families.
ACF is running programmes, with funding from Britain’s Department for International Development, to protect pastoralists’ livelihoods and prevent their animals from dying or being sold at very low prices.