LONDON (AlertNet) – Persistent fighting in northern Mali is hampering efforts to tackle hunger caused by a combination of conflict and last year’s drought, the head of the U.N.’s World Food Programme said.
WFP Executive Director Ertharin Cousin, who visited Mali this month, said the agency was using barges to take aid up river to the key northern towns Gao and Timbuktu, but she warned the approach of the lean, dry season and the lowering of river levels would exacerbate its difficulties.
The U.N. food agency is also getting to the north via Niger and using national non-governmental organisations to reach people.
A French-led offensive in Mali has pushed Islamists out of the northern towns and mountain bases they have been occupying, but the militants have hit back with several suicide attacks.
“The problem that we have in the north is that what is safe today is not tomorrow. You are seeing car bombs in Gao and Timbuktu which make our ability to move staff back into the area ever more precarious,” Cousin added.
She said she was particularly concerned that children were not getting proper nutrition and better humanitarian access was imperative.
The conflict has forced around 340,000 people to flee their homes, compounding a hunger crisis in Mali and neighbouring countries caused by last year's drought in the Sahel region of West Africa - the third in seven years.
The international community, keen to avoid a repeat of the 2011 Horn of Africa famine, responded very quickly to avert a catastrophe in the Sahel - a belt of land below the Sahara - after the failure of rains put millions of people at risk.
The WFP is helping feed more than 10 million people in eight countries, but Cousin stressed the crisis was not over.
“What I saw this year was healthy babies. They took pictures of me holding babies with fat arms. That’s where I get excited because it says we are doing something right,” she said.
“But I also saw a population in both Burkino Faso and in Mali of people who still can’t go home because of the ongoing conflict in northern Mali, and they have nothing.”
Cousin said climate change meant the Sahel would face more droughts, but the world now had a chance to stop droughts turning into disasters.
She urged donors to continue investing in the Sahel region so that the WFP and other agencies could help people build up their ability to cope with future droughts.
“The crisis is not over. The challenges have not ended. There is a pause in the crisis because we had a good rainy season last year. And whether or not that pause is permanent is up to us,” she added.
Cousin highlighted several programmes that are beginning to bear fruit.
- Development of water catchment basins to allow women to grow vegetables to sell
- Soil improvement programmes to help pastoralists reclaim pastureland
- Investment in good seeds and tools to increase farmers’ yields
For the first time, Cousin said, the WFP is buying food from Malian smallholder farmers to feed people in Mali through its school feeding and family feeding programmes. The long term goal is to boost the quality and quantity of farmers’ stock so they can eventually trade commercially.
“That’s the kind of change that will ensure we can break the cycle that we’ve been on for the last 10 years in the Sahel,” Cousin said.