Interview conducted October 2005
How do you feed 8,000 malnourished children in a matter of weeks? This was the mammoth task facing Red Cross logistician Justin Cuckow when he joined the emergency relief operation in Niger in August.
Among the many challenges were the rough terrain and finding the most vulnerable from a population that included nomads.
“It was hard work – 18 hours a day, seven days a week - but we achieved our aims by the start of September,” Justin said.
Almost eight million people have been affected by the severe food crisis in west Africa, which engulfed Niger, Mali, Mauritania and Burkina Faso. Niger was the worst affected country, with up to 3.5 million left vulnerable and thousands of children severely malnourished. A combination of drought and a locust plague triggered the crisis in what is one of the poorest regions in the world.
Practicalities of delivering aid
As team leader in Tahoua, one of the worst affected districts in Niger, Justin explained the practicalities of delivering food supplies to thousands of malnourished people.
“We were covering a huge area – 185km by 150km squared,” he said. “The roads, where they existed, were a nightmare - dirt tracks with sharp, flinty stones. As a result we were getting through four tyres a week. In other areas we had to use GPS (satellite technology) to find distribution sites.”
The Red Cross delivered food supplies using 24 six-wheel drive trucks across Tahoua, working through 16 health centres to identify the moderately malnourished children.
Preventing worse malnutrition
The main focus of the Red Cross operation has been to assist the thousands of moderately malnourished children under five years old to prevent them becoming seriously malnourished.
“We set up screening facilities in the health centre which involved weighing and measuring the children,” he said.
The children’ measurements are checked against a chart showing average proportions. One hundred per cent standard weight for height is ideal, 70 to 80 per cent and below is moderately malnourished. Below 70 per cent is severe.
“The children that were under 70 per cent standard weight for height would be referred to the therapeutic feeding centres run by other aid agencies,” Justin said.“Equally, when the children in the therapeutic centres put weight back on and were under 80 per cent they would be referred back to us. There is a lot of co-operation between the different agencies,” he said.
Working in co-operation
Justin added that they also worked closely with the Niger Red Cross.
“The co-operation we had with the Niger Red Cross in Tahoua was absolutely exemplary. It demonstrated how the Red Cross Movement can get results by having good people on the ground and benefiting from all the local knowledge they have,” he said.
While Justin’s team reached their aim of feeding 8,000 children, the relief operation is continuing until the harvest this autumn.
The Red Cross is currently distributing food to 333,000 people in Niger, including 24,500 seriously malnourished children in the worst affected regions of Maradi, Tahoua, Zinder and Agadez.
Find out more about our logistics emergency response unit