8 August 2005
The massive humanitarian response to the Niger food crisis is both welcome and urgently needed, but for the Tuareg nomads of northern Mali, it is both distant and meaningless.
“There is such a focus on Niger now, we have to be careful that other countries in the region are not ignored,” says Peter Pearce, team leader of the British Red Cross emergency response unit (ERU) in Niger, who flew to Mali last week to help assess the wider regional needs.
In partnership with the Spanish Red Cross, the Mali Red Cross has been conducting assessments over the last month of Tuareg families around Timbuktu, some 700km north of the capital, Bamako.
Given their nomadic lifestyle, it is logistically demanding even to find their locations. The emerging picture, however, is of drastic vulnerability.
"There is a real emergency up there," says Idrissa Traore, operations co-ordinator of the Mali Red Cross. "We have to act now."
As an initial response, the Red Cross is planning food distributions to some 2,800 Tuareg families around Timbuktu, where pastures have all but disappeared since last year’s drought and locust plague. They have also been left in a critically vulnerable position by the consequent rise in grain prices and the falling cost of livestock. According to Maria Concepcion Villanueva, the Spanish Red Cross representative in Mali, the situation is deteriorating fast.
"We have analysed all the indicators in Mali, and they all point to the country heading in exactly the same direction as Niger," she says.
"People don’t have the money to buy seeds, so they are forced to look for credit. The cost of cereals is rising, and the price of livestock has collapsed. We have been looking at the numbers of people who only eat once a day, if that, and many are also resorting to wild food (plants and berries)," she adds.
The government of Mali has provided general distributions of free grain in recent months in response to the region’s food crisis, but many nomads either did not receive a ration because of their itinerant lifestyle, or did not receive nearly enough to sustain their families.
Reports from local Red Cross staff around Timbuktu indicate that as many as 67 percent of the population is at risk. Health Ministry figures indicate that 90 percent of pregnant women are suffering from anemia.
"But these are nomadic populations and difficult to track, so the figures could be even higher," says Maria. "We also know that a lot of the men have taken their herds to try and find any grazing, so the women are left alone and become even more vulnerable."
Maria has used maps from the Mali water authority showing traditional watering holes and wells to locate where nomadic populations are likely to be. She is also in close contact with a Tuareg Red Cross official in Timbuktu, as well as with other humanitarian agencies such as Veterinaires Sans Frontieres (Vets Without Borders).
"This is a very well researched intervention, we know what we want to do," she says, insisting that a rigorous and realistic assessment is crucial if Mali is to avoid some of the more sensationalist media coverage seen in Niger.
Vulnerable and remote
Red Cross staff and Mali Health Ministry officials already in the area have been traveling around the commune of Salam north of Timbuktu for a week now, and will turn their attentions this week to areas to the south around Gourma-Rharous.
Aside from assessing malnutrition rates, registering beneficiaries and locating warehousing and local volunteers, they have also been conducting vaccinations.
A team of senior Mali Red Cross operational and medical staff, as well as a relief specialist, an an IT technician and an information officer flown in from the Niger operation, set off for Timbuktu on Monday morning to join them.
"This mission is aimed at collecting exact information on the emergency," says Idrissa. "We will be focusing on finding the most efficient ways of reaching the most vulnerable." The current assessment will also investigate wider needs in the area which the Mali Red Cross does not, as yet, have the capacity to respond to.
An initial distribution of locally sourced food, seeds and eventually animal fodder is planned for later in August to tide over the targeted families until rains restore grazing land. Bamako suppliers have been found for about 252 tonnes of imported rice, as well as 12,000 litres of oil and nine tonnes of sugar.
But the overall needs are likely to be far, far greater.
"We have to feed these people," says Idrissa. "They can’t eat because their herds are dying and the market has collapsed. And when they don’t eat, they get too weak to look for any remaining pastures, which in any case are already overgrazed, so their problems just get worse," he says.
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