By Megan Rowling
LONDON (AlertNet) - Children in Mali are at growing risk of severe hunger, disease and recruitment by militant groups amid drought-induced food shortages and widening conflict, aid experts are warning.
Valerie Amos, the U.N. under-secretary-general for humanitarian affairs, said the international community has not yet donated enough to ease the emergency in the West African country.
“Children's lives are being blighted by a nutritional crisis which we have the knowledge and capacity to address, but we lack the funds to do everything that is needed,” said the U.N. aid chief, who is visiting Mali. “We are saving lives here, but we must do more.”
The United Nations has appealed for $213.8 million for the humanitarian response in Mali, but has so far received only 46 percent of what it needs, according to the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA). Activities to provide clean water, hygiene, sanitation, education and healthcare are severely under-funded, it added.
Aid workers say 4.6 million Malians are affected by the hunger crisis, including 175,000 children who face life-threatening severe malnutrition.
Millions more people across the Sahel region of West Africa are also experiencing food shortages, brought on by a drought last year that reduced harvests. Parts of some countries, including Mali, Niger and Senegal, have also been hit by destructive floods in recent weeks.
At the same time, Mali is mired in conflict and political turmoil, which has uprooted almost 443,000 people.
Islamist groups control much of northern Mali after hijacking a secular Tuareg rebellion that began in January. The Tuaregs, backed by Islamist fighters, took control of the north in the wake of a March 22 military coup that toppled the president in the southern capital Bamako. Since then the better-armed Islamists have sidelined the Tuaregs in most areas.
Around 174,000 people are displaced inside Mali, while nearly 269,000 Malians have fled to neighbouring countries, according to the latest OCHA figures.
The Mali office of the international children's charity Plan is stepping up its emergency relief operations in the central town of Mopti - where hundreds of children have fled from the north.
It has also urged U.N. emergency relief coordinator Amos to press armed groups to stop using children in the conflict.
“We have learnt from our partners in northern Mali that militants are recruiting children to work as soldiers, minesweepers, scouts, spies, messengers, look-outs, cooks and sexual slaves,” said Christophe Mvogo, Plan Mali's emergency response manager.
'TERRIFIED' BY GUNFIRE
The aid group said it will provide psychosocial support for children who have been traumatised by the fighting, as well as child protection and education.
“Many children have been terrified by the sounds of guns which they never heard before, others have witnessed gruesome violence and others related how girls and women were taken from their homes, never to be heard from again," said Mvogo.
Schools in the north have been closed by Islamic militants who consider them to be indoctrination tools of western countries, Plan added. The charity is also providing aid in the form of cash, food and other essential supplies to displaced Malians in central and southern parts of the country.
Meanwhile, Doctors of the World (Medecins du Monde) has launched a vaccination and nutrition campaign in the northern desert region of Kidal. There has been a gradual increase in malnourished mothers and children at its health centres in what is one of the country's most isolated and insecure areas, the medical aid group said.
In the next week, 30 mobile teams and more than 120 health workers will immunise 12,000 children against measles and polio, as well as providing vitamin A supplements and treatment against parasites.
"The numerous displacements of households, as well as the limited access to affordable food, drinking water and healthcare has dramatically increased the risk for epidemics in the north," said Olivier Vandecasteele, head of Mali programmes for Medecins du Monde.
According to OCHA, almost 150,000 children across Mali have been treated for acute malnutrition, which costs around $100 per child.
But Amos said the root causes of today's food crisis across the Sahel must also be tackled "so that mothers ... can have confidence in the future for themselves and their children".
Even in years when the Sahel region receives plentiful rainfall, a quarter of a million children die of malnutrition due to poverty, poor health and a lack of clean water and sanitation, OCHA noted.