The conflict in northern Mali disrupted the farming, livestock and trading activities of many Malians and though peace and security are steadily returning, agencies are reporting on the fragility of the food situation across the region. Speaking to the Guardian, a spokesperson for the World Food Programme (WFP) said that families in the north were spending “between 85–90% of their income on food” and many were going without essential items for a healthy diet.
The WFP and other agencies, including SOS Children, are at work in northern Mali to provide emergency food assistance. For families with children, this means distributing supplements such as sachets of Plumpy’nut from food distribution centres. Even with this assistance, malnutrition rates are believed to be running at rates of as much as 17% in some parts of northern Mali, such as in Burem, a district of Gao (though up-to-date figures are not available for many areas). The WFP estimates that around 1.3 million Malians will continue to need food assistance for the rest of the year and into 2014.
The region was already a poor one before the conflict, but since the outbreak of fighting many families have lost their main breadwinners, with some men leaving to find work in neighbouring countries. For those who have stayed, it is common not to have received any wages for a long time.
Children go without a meal over the weekend
Under a programme run by the WFP, children in many parts are receiving free school meals of porridge for breakfast and rice and beans for lunch. This feeding programme is running in nearly 580 schools, including around 250 in Gao. The director of a children’s wellbeing centre in Gao told the Guardian that these meals were vital, since many children “have nothing at all to eat at home, and when they go home on Friday, they will not eat ....until they come back to school on Monday again”.
Aid agencies are worried that if malnutrition levels continue to remain high, death rates among the under-fives will rise steeply. Speaking to IRIN, a worker with Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) explained that many deaths among young children due to illnesses such as respiratory infections, malaria and diarrhoea are interlinked with malnutrition, since it leaves children more vulnerable. In one district of Mali, in the Sikasso region, the charity is therefore trialling a two-year programme where children are given anti-malarial tablets, vaccinated against pneumococcal diseases and offered nutritional supplements on follow-up visits from health workers, among other intervention measures. Since the programme started, stunting has fallen by a third and child mortality by half. MSF has called the results “astonishing” and plans to implement similar programmes in other parts of the Sahel.