BET, the acronym for the three northern regions of Chad – Borkou, Ennedi and Tibesti – comes up regularly in meetings of international aid agencies frustrated by the lack of information and difficulty of access to the remote territory.
Drought in 2009 triggered the government’s call for international assistance, but no one really knows the full extent of the problem, according to a local NGO.
"Everything we eat comes from Kanem and Batha [Chad's west and central regions in the arid Sahelian belt] ... why are people not asking how bad things are here? Why is no one coming to assess?" Mahamat Khamis, president of an NGO in Ennedi, the Association for the promotion of local development initiatives, which began as a Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation project in 1999.
The state and the international community are barely present in the north. "Seventy-five percent of the schools are financed by parents; health centres are scarce - the population in the north has been left to fend for themselves," Jean-Robert Moret, head of the Swiss Cooperation in Chad, told IRIN.
He said the problems in the north were not emergencies, but development problems left unattended could turn into emergencies. The Swiss Cooperation has funded schools, health, demining and environmental activities in Ennedi since the 1990s.
Poor rainfall in 2009 led the government to estimate that it would take an additional 637,000 tonnes of food to feed its population, estimated at almost 11 million in 2009, and prevent two million children aged under five from slipping into greater hunger.
The arid BET regions – home to 264,000 people – primarily produce salt and grow dates around oases, but there is too little rainfall for agriculture. They rely on Chad's southern and Sahel regions for food, but these have produced 34 percent less than in previous years, according to a multi-agency survey in October 2009.
The study, which did not include the BET regions, estimated that the drought killed 31 percent of livestock. "We were not able to access the north, and hope to get there at some point," said Mariam Sow Soumaré, technical advisor to the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO).
But Khamis told IRIN that "some point" was growing too late. Neither the government nor international agencies have conducted comprehensive agriculture or health surveys in the north.
Health workers at the five clinics in Ennedi, who were not trained to diagnose malnutrition but could measure weight and height, told IRIN that almost half the children they saw were underweight or too short for their age group – signs of malnutrition.
Michele Falavigna, the UN Humanitarian Coordinator for Chad, told IRIN the north did not raise as much concern as the rest of the country. "The region has elected parliamentarians, who represent the regions in the central administration. There are no widespread epidemics; the impact of climate change is not hitting them as hard as the rest of the nation because it has always been a desert region whose residents are resilient to so many factors."
Photo: National Demining Centre, Chad
|Deminer in northern Chad's Ennedi region near Wadi Doum|
The outgoing World Food Programme programme manager in Chad, Gon Myers, said the threat of landmines and unexploded ordnance had curtailed support of school feeding programmes in the north.
"The challenge ... is accessibility because of the landmines; we cannot invest in areas where we cannot visit schools." A visit in February 2010 to four school feeding programmes along the Sudan border in the northeast had required mine-resistant armoured vehicles from the UN peacekeeping mission in the Central African Republic and Chad.
"We cannot afford to carry out observation missions with such heavy security. We need the government to work alongside us, to ensure safety for us to work in the north," Myers said.
A decade of sporadic fighting between Chad and Libya over a sparsely populated strip of land in the north has left the area dotted with at least a million mines, said Saleh Hissein Hassan, coordinator of the national demining centre.
Some 250 communities, or 284,000 people, are thought to live in mined areas, mostly the north, but these estimates do not include the northwestern region of Tibesti, which has not been surveyed because of safety concerns, said Hassan.
"Development is closely tied to how quickly we can identify where the mines are, and how quickly we can demine and clear roads," he said. The centre is preparing to carry out a survey funded by Japan, to create a national landmine map that will also cover Tibesti.
The Ministry of Environment wants to include the north in the "Green Wall", a nationwide reforestation initiative to combat desertification, but has been concerned about mines, said secretary general Saleh Mouhddine Mahamat. "No one can say we have abandoned the north; the will is there, but we need more funds and security to add to what is already being done."
However, Hassan told IRIN that "People think of northerners as troublemakers. When asked about the lack of relief and development projects, agencies will tell you it is lack of security, but many times it is a political bias against the north."
In April 2010 a dozen rebel factions in the north signed a peace deal with the government, ending years of sporadic fighting over demands for more government services and investment in the region. President Idriss Deby pledged US$54 million to clear roads and develop Tibesti. Barkai Saleh Choua Moussa, a former rebel, now the government-appointed Tibesti focal point, told IRIN: "The era of promises for the north needs to translate into action. People say desert residents are survivors, but even they have their limits."