GAET TEIDOUMA, Mauritania (February 21, 2012) — Each year, the period between the rains and the new harvest is a lean season, when mothers like Fatima Mohammed struggle to feed their children—in Mohammed's case, seven of them.
But last year, there was no rain, and this year’s lean season has come three months early.
Without rain, the pasture for livestock disappears, and the goats produce less milk. Families compete with birds and locusts for what crops manage to survive. Family members, often men and older boys, are already leaving to search for better pastoral land or work.
UNICEF estimates that in 2012, across the eight countries of the Sahel region, more than a million children will suffer from severe acute malnutrition, which, untreated, can quickly lead to death. The Government of Mauritania and humanitarian agencies are hoping to respond now to avoid mass starvation, worsening poverty and social dislocation.
In Hodh El Gharbi Region, home mainly to pastoral nomads, carcasses of dead animals line the road. The region is a major supplier of meat to urban areas; should today's food insecurity become a full-blown crisis, the potential loss of livestock would devastate households here and nationwide.
Efforts are underway to build community resilience through investments in agricultural, health and nutrition services. They are part of a joint initiative by four UN agencies—UNICEF, the World Food Program (WFP), the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) and the World Health Organization (WHO)—along with the government and partner NGOs. Over the last three years, the initiative has successfully reached some of the remotest communities in the country.
UNICEF has helped a local health center in Hodh El Gharbi stay stocked with vaccines, essential medicines and therapeutic food to treat severe malnutrition. And nutrition centers in many villages are now stocked with corn soya blend, oil and sugar supplied by WFP. Mothers can take their moderately malnourished children to these centers for evaluation and treatment, and return home with vital food supplies.
Other programs are helping as well. With extensive community education, country-wide rates of exclusive breastfeeding—a critical first line defence for young infants—has shot up to from 35% in 2009 to 46%.
But with no rain and an early lean season, these signs of resilience are not enough. Families are running out of food.
"There is no doubt the investments in development have paid off, but today, we have an emergency, and local communities cannot survive without more help," said Dr. Ahmed Ould Aida, a UNICEF nutrition specialist.
Aida visited a tented home in Hodh El Gharbi, where a 70-year-old woman was mixing a bowl of millet meal for her malnourished twin grandchildren. The children's father has left to find work.
"Even the adults are feeble," the grandmother said angrily. "When it rains, we normally have something, but now it is not just the children but all of us who suffer from hunger and no food." The family has been forced to rely on neighbors for meals.
Amadou Demba, his wife and his 21-month-old daughter are staying with relatives in Kiffa, a town in Assaba Region, 47 miles from their remote village home. Demba borrowed US$20 to bring his family to Kiffa so his daughter could be treated for malnutrition at the local health center. "There is nothing left for us there," he said of his home.
Lucia Elmi, UNICEF Representative in Mauritania, said there are three immediate challenges: logistics, security and human capacity. In 2012, UNICEF will need at least $3.2 million dollars to prepare for a large-scale response to acute malnutrition and to invest in health, water and sanitation services. Additional funds will be needed to sustain these efforts.
"There is no doubt it will be difficult to reach children in a country this large and with populations so spread out," Elmi said. "But if our responsibility and mandate is to make sure every child counts, then it is critical we respond now, especially to reach the poorest and most vulnerable, wherever they are."