DAKAR (AlertNet) - Tens of thousands of people uprooted or trapped by conflict in northern Mali are going without enough food, leading to a spike in cases of children suffering from malnutrition, medical aid groups say.
“The nutrition problems are at a critical level,” said Abdel Aziz Mohammed, emergency projects coordinator in Mali for the humanitarian organisation Alliance for International Medical Action (ALIMA).
“Most people cannot find food and where it is available it is very expensive,” he told AlertNet on the phone from Bire, an area near the desert trading town of Timbuktu.
“A mother who has no food or eats food without enough nutrients cannot provide any nutrients to her baby taking breast milk, leading to a vicious circle of hunger,” he added.
ALIMA’s teams running mobile clinics and a community health centre in Bire have treated more malnourished children since the start of the ‘lean season’, Mohammed said.
This annual period between planting and the next harvest, when food stocks have been depleted, has been exacerbated this year by insecurity following a Tuareg-led uprising that began in January, a deepening political crisis triggered by a March coup d'état, and a proliferation of armed groups in the north, where an independent state has been proclaimed.
On Wednesday, at least 20 people were killed in a gun battle between local Tuareg separatists and al Qaeda-linked Islamists in the northern town of Gao, witnesses said.
The situation in northern Mali is also being compounded by a wider food and nutrition crisis across the Sahel region of West Africa, where the United Nations estimates that 18 million people are facing hunger due to a combination of drought, failed crops, insect swarms and high food prices.
Aid workers warn that living conditions in Mali’s troubled north will worsen unless security improves, enabling better access for humanitarian groups, and donors provide more funding for relief operations.
“We hope that the international community will come to the help of these people,” ALIMA’s Mohammed said.
Many families, moving in search of safety, are settling in other hamlets where their hosts are already struggling with the general food crisis, he added.
More than 372,000 people have been uprooted from their homes by the conflict in Mali, with about half of them crossing borders into neighbouring Burkina Faso, Niger and Mauritania, according to the United Nations.
“Many are terrified and ready to leave everything behind to escape violence,” Marie-Christine Férir, emergency coordinator for the medical charity Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF) said in a statement this week.
Agencies have stepped up efforts to provide life-saving assistance, but resources are dwindling and additional financial support is needed, according to a report released on Monday by U.S.-based advocacy group Refugees International (RI).
RI urged donors, including the United States and the European Union, to boost funding immediately to support both Malian refugees and their host communities.
Meanwhile, many refugees are living in dire conditions without sufficient water and food. Mothers, in particular, are not receiving milk nor the right food for their children, MSF said.
"The rice (they get) can relieve hunger, but cannot replace the nutrients children need,” Férir said. “The distribution of elements such as proteins, fats, vitamins, carbohydrates and minerals (is) essential for growth and development of the child."
The charity says its teams have been dealing mainly with diseases like diarrhoea, associated with poor nutrition, dirty water and hygiene.
MSF has also treated almost 1,000 severely malnourished children in camps in Niger, Mali and Mauritania since the beginning of the emergency response.