By Soumaila T. Diarra
BAROUELI, Mali (AlertNet) – Many Malian villages are struggling to cope with health problems made worse by a chronic lack of rain and spreading conflict, with a rising number of children suffering from malnutrition, aid workers say.
In the central region of Ségou, hunger has increased after poor harvests last year, but few communities know malnutrition can be treated if caught in time.
“Local people are not aware that malnutrition is a sickness. Until they see the symptoms of illness like pains and thinning bodies, they don’t go to a health centre,” Fakoro Kone, head of the Mali Red Cross office in Barouéli village, told AlertNet.
Dabourou Coumare, a baby girl of 13 months, cries as her 20-year-old mother points to her skinny ribs. “I didn’t know she was suffering from malnutrition,” Bintou Coumare said. “So I tried first to cure her with traditional medicine because I was thinking she had pneumonia.”
Kone’s team is working to raise awareness about malnutrition in 245 villages in the region, teaching people how to prevent severe hunger among their families and friends.
“Our volunteers are trained villagers who look for malnourished people in their communities. They are also trained to cure malnutrition and to counsel community members on how to improve their diet,” Kone said.
Similar efforts are needed in other parts of Mali, which has been hit by the wider food crisis affecting large areas of the Sahel region of West Africa. The Red Cross has been distributing food aid in Mali since the beginning of the year, and the next harvest is not due until October.
This month, Ségou and other areas have also been hit by heavy rains and flooding - which raises the threat of water-borne diseases on top of everything else.
Aminata Sissoko, who runs the Mali Red Cross nutrition programme, said 195 of Mali’s 703 municipalities are currently facing food insecurity. “The harvests failed last year because of a lack of rainfall. One of the consequences of this drought is that about 3.5 million people are affected by food shortages,” she said.
The malnutrition rate is currently over 10 percent and children are the worst hit. “As the mums are not well-fed, their babies are obviously affected too,” Sissoko explained.
Kone’s assistant Youssouf Litini believes there is a link between malnutrition and climate change. “When it used to rain more regularly, farmers could produce enough food to feed their families. Now they no longer get enough food from their farms because their agrarian agenda is disturbed by the irregularity of the rains,” Litini said.
In the past decade, Mali has faced three other droughts - in 2010, 2007 and 2005 – which all led to major food shortages.
Sidi Konate, a climate specialist at the University of Bamako, said annual average rainfall volumes have been declining across the Sahel since the 1970s. “The rate of (rainfall) reduction in the region is 15 to 30 percent, and in Mali (it) is 20 percent,” he said.
In response, the Malian government is assisting farmers by providing meteorological information via local radio stations, and giving them guidance on which seeds to plant and when, to adapt to shifting rain patterns.
One direct impact of the drought on nutrition is the dying out of some indigenous plants that are rich in vitamins. The Mali Red Cross is now trying to reintroduce some of these into local diets.
“We encourage women to plant the morenga tree, whose leaves are used to make sauce for couscous, a local meal. This plant has disappeared because of droughts, but people still know it, as they used to consume it”, Litini said.
Measures like this may help tackle malnutrition in the longer term, but for many the issue is more pressing – particularly as food shortages are now being exacerbated by the movement of people displaced by conflict.
Islamist militant groups control about two-thirds of Mali after hijacking a secular Tuareg rebellion in the north at the start of this year and seizing more territory in the wake of a March 22 military coup, which toppled the president in the southern capital Bamako.
"There is no refugee camp here, but our volunteers noticed that, in 600 families, there are people who have come from the north," said Kone.
Large numbers of Malians who live in the north have fled the violence to lodge with relatives further south. Some 174,000 Malians are displaced inside the country, while nearly 269,000 Malians have fled to Algeria, Burkina Faso, Mauritania and Niger.
In Barouéli, meanwhile, Dabourou Coumare and 10 other children with severe malnutrition have been admitted to the Mali Red Cross Recuperation and Intensive Nutritional Education Unit, along with their mothers, more than filling its 10 available beds.
Hassana Daffe, the doctor in charge of the centre, said the number of children affected by severe malnutrition has doubled this year.
“In 2011, children suffering from severe malnutrition were admitted to the centre at a rate of 10 or 15 per month. This year, each month, we are receiving around 25 or 30 children,” he said.
In July, 25 children were brought into the centre for treatment, compared with just five in the same month last year.
The Red Cross provides free food and medication for malnourished children and their parents during their stay at the centre.
“I came here with my baby of 14 months more than a week ago, and she is now fine,” said Nayouma Diarra, a 35-year-old woman whose family has been badly affected by food shortages. “At home (in the village of Sanankoro, near Barouéli) we don’t have sufficient food, so the quantity we eat is considerably reduced,” she added.
Alleviating malnutrition rates in the region will depend on how well communities can learn to understand their role in preventing it, aid workers say.
When Red Cross volunteers began visiting pregnant women and children in their villages, they met with some resistance.
“It was difficult to make some people accept that we were coming to measure and weigh their children,” said volunteer Oumar Traore.
“Now people are not reluctant because they know the only purpose of what we are doing is the health of their children. When we notice a child is suffering from malnutrition, we ask his or her parents to go to the health centre before the disease worsens,” Traore explained.
Soumaila T. Diarra is a freelance journalist based in Bamako with an interest in environmental issues.