KATSINA STATE, Nigeria (September 18, 2012) — It’s 9:00 a.m., and already the soil is being scorched by the unforgiving sun. The landscape is bleached out with no shade. The only splash of color is provided by ten yellow watering cans lined up neatly by the side of a muddy well. Next to them, Al Haji Yahaya and his young son are methodically filling them up with brown-colored water from what is little more than a sandy hole.
It’s a ritual that this family and countless others across the Sahel region practice daily. The two-hour round trip on a donkey cart is the only way Yahaya can be assured access to water for his cattle and for his household. “I know it’s not clean. The children sometimes get sick, but what can I do?” he says.
Yahaya and his family live in the northern part of Nigeria, one of eight states that make up the Sahel region. UNICEF estimates that 1.1 million children are threatened with severe acute malnutrition in the region, which is fuelled by poverty, insecurity and lack of access to clean water. Yet, the crisis in Africa’s most populous nation is largely a “silent one,” argues Bamidele Davis Omotola, Senior Nutrition Specialist at UNICEF’s Nigeria country office. “Most people do not see it, but 41% of Nigeria’s children are stunted, and that is a basic indication that something is very wrong,” he says.
The global picture in Nigeria masks the reality on the ground. One of Africa’s richest oil states on the surface, Nigeria may seem a world apart from other Sahelian states such as Mali and the Niger. Only now is Nigeria’s place in the Sahel crisis becoming clearer to the international community.
Since UNICEF, in collaboration with the Government of Nigeria, set up hospital- and community-based facilities, more mothers are coming forward. According to the 2012 Nigeria Standardized Monitoring and Assessment of Relief and Transitions (SMART) survey, global acute malnutrition has a prevalence of between 6.4% and 13.1%, and severe acute malnutrition between 0.7% and 2.2%.
At Katsina General Hospital, half a dozen infants are being treated for severe malnutrition problems. That number is likely to swell with the onset of rains, because severely malnourished children are more prone to such diseases as cholera and malaria. “These infections can affect the brain, affect the health and can affect the respiratory system, but the most common are gastrointestinal diseases,” explains Dr. Yahaya Mohammed, who treats the children.
Nigeria has one of the highest rates of infant mortality in the world. One in seven children dies before her or his fifth birthday. In response, UNICEF is trying to step up efforts to bring specialist help to the most vulnerable children.
At busy Katsina General Hospital, children admitted with severe acute malnutrition are given specialized feeding and therapeutic care to help rehabilitate them. Once they are stabilized and able to be discharged, they’ll be monitored as part of an eight-week program at an outpatient therapeutic care program (OTP). OTPs are one-stop shops located in the community that provide children with access to both nutritional help and other medical services, including childhood immunizations.
Compared to neighboring Mali, which has recently faced political shocks, Nigeria has some stability. Farming is the main source of livelihood in the North, and the population is highly mobile, enjoying cross-border trade with such states as the Niger. Yet, an upsurge in sectarian violence and attacks on churches and schools in the North have threatened the livelihoods of tens of thousands who live here, contributing to what is already a vulnerable situation.
Although agencies such as UNICEF continue to operate in the region, there is a perceptible nervousness among the population. People are avoiding big cities, and the mobility of farmers and traders is potentially threatened because of security fears. Nigeria is as vulnerable as it is vast. Disease, poverty and malnutrition are already inflicting a heavy toll, and, despite optimism that this year’s harvest in October will give high yields, the country’s needs are as pressing as those of its neighbors across the parched Sahel.