Aid Groups Sound Alarm of Severe Food Crisis in West Africa

Women work in a field in March 2012 near Diapaga, Burkina Faso. 1.5 million children could suffer if famine not immediately addressed, say aid groups. (AFP/File, Raphael de Bengy)

Aid Groups Sound Alarm of Severe Food Crisis in West Africa

International aid and human rights groups, including the World Health Organization, UNICEF, and the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR), are sounding the alarm over worsening conditions in the Sahel region of western Africa where threat of mass malnutrition is at "emergency levels" and "at least one million children at risk." The Sahel -- which includes parts of Burkina Faso, Chad, Mali, Mauritania and Niger -- has been hit hard by recent droughts, volatile food prices and growing regional conflict.

"This is a region always on the verge of a crisis. Families and children have been weakened from the drought in 2010 and 2005. Now there is growing insecurity in a number of countries with hundreds of thousands of people displaced, rising food prices, and a bad harvest," said UNICEF's Executive Director Anthony Lake during a recent visit to Chad. "The people of the Sahel are on the edge of a perfect storm with one million children at risk," he added.

At a joint news conference on Tuesday, Lake explained that his group, along with the WHO and UNHCR, were "appealing for an end to global indifference."

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Agence France-Presse reports:

Children's aid organisation UNICEF on Tuesday led a cross-agency appeal for funds for the Sahel region where 15 million are suffering from malnutrition, it said.

"Children are the victims. In the worst case scenario many children will die, many families will suffer," said UNICEF executive director Anthony Lake, back from a visit to Chad. [...]

"We are appealing for an end to global indifference." -- UNICEF Director Anthony Lake

According to Lake, there is a "certain fatigue" among the public when it comes to the Sahel, suffering its third famine in 10 years.

About 15 million people are affected by malnutrition, among them 1 to 1.5 million children, said Lake, and yet a December 2011 appeal for $700 million has so far brought in less than half that amount.

UN High Commissioner for Refugees Antonio Guterres said the situation in Mali was of particular concern because drought and food insecurity was coupled with political conflict, with a coup nearly three weeks ago setting off a sequence in which the northern half of the country was seized by Tuareg rebels and their Islamist allies.

"The crisis in Mali has contributed to a dramatic humanitarian situation," he said, with more than 200,000 people displaced.

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UNICEF correspondent Bob Coen reports on an increase in child malnutrition in Mali as the Sahel region is gripped by a severe food crisis:

* * * reports: UN Warns Lack of Funds Threatens Response to Food Crisis in Africa's Region

UN High Commissioner for Refugees Antonio Guterres said the situation in the Sahel was the result of the combined effects of drought, food insecurity, water scarcity, environmental degradation and conflict.

An estimated 250,000 people have been displaced by the political upheaval in Mali, half of the number internally. Some 48,000 sought refuge in Mauritania, 28,000 in Niger and 32,000 in Burkina Faso. A few thousand have gone to Algeria.

"The truth is that there is very little attention to the crisis in the Sahel," said Mr. Guterres. "Most of the focus of the international community has been on the Syrian crisis."

He said that too much attention was also paid to the coup and the military situation in Mali at the expense of humanitarian needs, and urged the international community to show solidarity with people in neighbouring countries who are sharing their meagre resources with the Malian refugees. "The response of the international community is very, very insufficient," he said.

Describing the food and nutrition situation in the Sahel as a public health crisis, Margaret Chan, the Director-General of WHO, urged the world to turn the situation into a window of opportunity to improve conditions there.

"We need to ask ourselves, can we turn this peril into an opportunity? That is why we would like to bring this crisis to the attention of the international community," she said.

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