Adapting emergency food aid to combat malnutrition

While food aid is vital for tackling malnutrition, it cannot be the sole response when the condition is chronic as in Chad’s western Kanem region, where aid workers have developed a programme to meet both urgent needs and long-term food insecurity.

Studies in Kanem by the World Food Programme (WFP) and NGO Action Against Hunger (ACF) in 2008 showed acute overall malnutrition levels of 20 percent and an under-five mortality rate of three per 10,000 per day – surpassing emergency thresholds.

"With worsening nutritional indicators and increased acute malnutrition there is a need for an urgent [response],” said Marzio Babille, representative of the UN Children’s Fund, UNICEF, in Chad. “But food aid is not enough as the causes for the current [nutrition] emergency are long-term and structural,” he said.

"Malnutrition has been an issue in Kanem since the 1980s,” Khadidja Rahma Saleh, deputy coordinator of the Health Ministry’s health and nutrition programme, told IRIN.

A number of factors explain the region’s chronic malnutrition and food insecurity problems, according to Mariam Sow Soumaré of the Agriculture Ministry’s early warning system.

"It is an isolated region with little infrastructure and no access to markets and health services,” she said. "Land is also a factor, as many people lack access and there is little fertile land.”

The region is often affected by floods, while overall rainfall has decreased in the past few years; the erratic rainfall patterns lead to "unpredictable farming,” according to the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), which has worked in the region for years.

The Health Ministry’s Saleh said certain habits worsen the nutritional status of mothers and children. "Women generally do not do exclusive breastfeeding and children are weaned too early. We have not been able to change this trend [but] we must.” She noted that many malnourished children are not from the poorest communities.

Mobilising funding

UN agencies and partner NGOs have developed a joint response in Kanem, jointly tackling health, nutrition and food security with leadership from the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) and donor funding including from the European Community’s humanitarian aid department (ECHO).

"The only possible response to this chronic problem is an integrated programme", UNICEF’s Babille told IRIN.

WFP, UNICEF and ACF are providing assistance to women and children with food distributions and vaccinations; FAO is helping farmers diversify agriculture and build up livestock.

Duccio Staderini, ECHO technical assistant in Chad, told IRIN it is difficult but necessary “to adapt emergency tools in order for results that help development, including securing longer-term funding”.

Emergency situations generally operate on short-term funding, which is not compatible with long-term action, he noted.

Photo: Celeste Hicks/IRIN
A child in Kanem

The Kanem project, which calls for nearly $US6.4 million over nine months, is not fully funded; for now some activities are funded just till June, the start of the lean period.

Aid workers say funds must be mobilised quickly. “We must follow the farming calendar,” said Stéphane Degueurce, FAO assistant for emergencies. "The [crop] production period goes from June to September, so if nothing is put in place soon we will miss important steps.”

Furthermore, Chadian authorities must take leadership of the project for it to be sustainable, aid workers say. Many say the government became involved in the response plan quite late.

Despite the challenges, with long-term funding it would be possible to make a difference, project workers told IRIN.

"There are now suitable conditions to make the project successful,” FAO’s Degueurce said. "There is good coordination, people are motivated, there are actors on the ground in a structured way and they know the area well.”