LONDON (AlertNet) – Chad, again on the brink of a food crisis, will keep lurching from one emergency to another unless donors overcome their “repetitive amnesia” on the country and tackle chronic malnutrition there, International Medical Corps (IMC) warns.
Aid groups have warned that hunger threatens between 5 and 9 million people in countries in Africa's Sahel region just below the Sahara including Chad, Niger, Mauritania, Burkina Faso and Mali.
IMC country director Benoit Delsarte said Chad's annual lean season, the period between harvests that normally starts in May or June, could begin as early as next month.
“People are praying for assistance. They are desperate,” he told AlertNet, during a trip to London to raise awareness of the impending emergency.
The crisis, due to low rainfall, poor harvests, lack of pasture and high food prices, has been compounded by last year’s turmoil in neighbouring Libya which forced hundreds of thousands of migrant workers to return to Chad and Niger. Many had been supporting large families with the wages they sent home.
The Sahel's continuing struggle to feed its population has also been overshadowed this year by the crisis in the Horn of Africa, which has left more than 13 million people at risk of starvation in Somalia, Ethiopia, Kenya and Djibouti.
The last severe food shortage in the region in 2010 affected about 10 million people.
IMC, which runs health centres and mobile clinics, is scaling up its work in eastern Chad and planning to extend its operations to the lake region in the west.
Even in an average year 450,000 children in Chad need treatment for acute malnutrition, but the number will increase dramatically this year, Delsarte warned.
However he stressed donors must do more than just provide food aid. Diarrhoea is a major cause of malnutrition, particularly in young children, so improving water and sanitation is also crucial.
U.N. figures show donors respond well to appeals for food aid in Chad, but water and sanitation is usually less than 50-percent funded.
Delsarte said changing local attitudes to breastfeeding is also crucial to tackling malnutrition in Chad where a child has a one-in-five chance of dying before her or his fifth birthday.
Many mothers give their babies water, increasing the risk of diarrhoea. They also discard their colostrum, the thick nutritious milk produced just after birth which is rich in antibodies and protein.
A major problem in Chad is the lack of healthcare. People often have to walk up to two days to get to a health centre and three days to get to hospital.
Delsarte said traditional healers were an important part of the solution and that IMC was training them about harmful traditional practices, the benefits of breastfeeding and the importance of referring people to clinics when they are sick.
Chad has an acute shortage of skilled local healthworkers. Most are concentrated in the richer south and do not want to work in poorer regions.
IMC has started an initiative to pay for rural women in the east to train at nursing school in the capital N’Djamena in southwestern Chad. The aid agency also hopes to introduce nutrition into the curriculum in nursing schools.
Delsarte said that because Chad and Niger faced repeated emergencies the focus was always on responding to crises rather than preventing them.
“If we just carry on like this I know that in two or three years we will have exactly the same situation again. And in the long term it’s more expensive. We need to build more resilience in the population so we need some longer-term commitments,” he said.
Delsarte said treating a child with acute malnutrition might cost $200-250.
“Maybe for half that price we could prevent it in many more children and build resilience so that it doesn’t happen again,” he added.
He called for emergency responses and long-term development to be better integrated and for donors to think about development from the start of an emergency.
(Editing by Rebekah Curtis)