15 August 2005
Niger’s hunger crisis has raised potent questions about international willingness to respond to food shortages in Africa before they become emergencies. In neighbouring Mali, a deteriorating and potentially disastrous situation is demanding some answers.
“If we don’t get rain soon, it will destroy the animals, it will destroy the community, it will destroy everything,” says Hamid Mohamed Lamine, the head of Tindjambane village, 18km east of Timbuktu. “At this time of year, that should all be green,” pointing to an endless landscape of small dunes and dry scrub.
Rains that should be well under way have not materialized in this arid region of Mali, some 1,000km north of the capital Bamako. Another two or three weeks like this, the nomads say, and the damage to pasture and livestock will be irreparable.
Mali has not reached Niger’s crisis levels of malnutrition, but every indicator suggests this northern region is heading in that direction. The price of grain has more than quadrupled since last year’s drought and locust plague and the market value of livestock has collapsed to create a disaster in the making for semi-nomadic pastoralist communities.
Traditional pastures will simply disappear if the grass does not grow sufficiently to reseed itself, and even if it rains and a harvest takes place, it will yield nowhere near enough to carry the population through to next year.
“We want above anything else to avoid what’s happening in Niger,” says Idrissa Traore, operations co-ordinator of the Mali Red Cross, who arrived in Timbuktu last week with a multi-disciplinary team to assess the situation.
The Red Cross is planning initial food distributions in three districts in Timbuktu region to some 2,800 families, mostly Bella and Tuareg nomads who together make up the Tamashek community. Logistics staff have been redeployed from the Niger operation to provide backup to the Mali Red Cross and the Spanish Red Cross, which has been working in Mali for the past six years.
Idrissa and his team have visited locations around the province, including the communes of Gourma Rharous, some 160km east of the regional capital, as well as Haribomo and Bambara Maoude.
Almost without exception, the stories they have heard follow depressingly similar lines. “The heads of each household are all leaving to find pasture because there is no grass here,” says Hamid Lamine. “The women and children are left behind, and they don’t have the means to support themselves.”
Following a Tuareg rebellion over rights and autonomy in the 1990s, peace talks secured agreements from the nomads that they would settle for at least part of the year in established communities such as Tindjambane, allowing them access to education and health care.
That system is now fast disintegrating as the heads of households are forced ever further afield in search of viable grazing land. Traditionally the whole family would move, but as resources dwindle, only the strongest can leave and families are broken up. Both the traditional way of life and the adapted model are collapsing.
“If there is no rain and no outside intervention to help us,” says Hamid, “this population will disappear, they will all disappear.”
A local doctor in Haribomo explains that many people have strayed too far from any town or village to seek treatment for the malnourished or the sick. “They’re all very spread out and they don’t have the means to get here to the clinic,” he says.
The Spanish Red Cross in Bamako is using maps of traditional wells and watering holes to establish the whereabouts of potential beneficiaries, but it is painstaking work, and time is running out.
Even if it does rain, many families have either had to kill or simply abandon livestock that is already too weak and sick to be of any use. Carcasses litter the approach to Gourma Rharous.
Given the logistical challenges, precise malnutrition figures for Mali have yet to be firmly established, but several humanitarian agencies including the World Food Program (WFP) have issued public alerts. In the United Kingdom, the appeal launched by the Disasters Emergency Committee (DEC) has been met with overwhelming generosity, raising £17 million so far.
The initial Red Cross distributions will comprise 252 tonnes of rice and 50 tonnes of enriched flour, along with oil, sugar, animal vaccines and fodder.
But for Mali, the question remains. Can the world act before a precarious and alarming situation becomes an emergency?
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