Life still hard in northern Mali, despite peace deal

Many people in northern Mali had high hopes their lives would improve following the signing of a peace deal in June, but the ongoing fighting in the north of the country is increasingly threatening the livelihoods of millions, affecting everything from access to food, water, education and grazing.

Since the conflict began in 2012, households have struggled to find work and collect crops as the effects of climate change and persistent insecurity make it harder and harder to eke out an existence. While some of the estimated 136,000 refugees and 90,000 internally displaced people (IDPs) have begun to return home, many remain living within host communities or camps. 

In order to get by, an estimated 10 to 15 percent of people in Mali have borrowed money, sold off livestock, or become involved in illegal activities such as trafficking, according to the World Food Programme (WFP) and the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO).

No food or water

An estimated 3.1 million people in Mali are considered to be “food insecure,” according to the UN’s emergency aid coordination body OCHA. This means approximately one-fifth of the population either doesn’t have enough to eat or lacks access to nutritious foods, such as meat and vegetables.

The majority live in the north, where forced displacement, collapsed markets and limited humanitarian access to deliver food aid have created these conditions. The situation has been worsened by reduced access to grazing grounds for animals and increasing numbers of farmers who abandon their fields, fearing attacks by armed groups.

“We’re enormously affected by the crisis,” said Kadidja Konaté, a farmer in Konna, who explained that in previous years she received food aid, including rice, cooking oil and millet, from the government. This year, she hasn’t received any help.

The government, along with partners such as WFP, FAO and the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), has so far been able to reach just 220,000 of the 450,000 targeted people in need of agriculture and livestock support this year. 

Despite above average rainfall levels, according to the National Early Warning System, irregular rains at the beginning of the season were reported in many areas of the country, disrupting planting cycles. 

“Normally you’ll have a few good years in between droughts when communities can recover,” said Wanalher Ag Alwaly, a humanitarian consultant in Gao. “In Mali, because of constant insecurity, communities are less resilient.”

To make matters worse, more than 54,000 people in northern Mali don’t have adequate access to drinking water, OCHA reports. Many water sources have dried up, including ponds and wells, due to the lack of rains early in the season. Pumps have fallen into disrepair and can’t be fixed due to insecurity.

No market access

From May to July 2015, access to markets in Timbuktu was also constrained by insecurity. Since then the situation has slightly improved but there are still some villages where freedom of movement is limited by the fear of being harassed or looted. 

“It was quite difficult for many people to attend weekly fairs and, in some cases, people were attacked and robbed coming from the market,” said Jean-Pierre Nereyabagabo, the economic security coordinator for ICRC in Mali.

In Menaka, a town with a mostly nomadic Tuareg population close to the border with Niger, staple foods like rice, millet and cooking oil, have become scarce as bandits attacking trucks and private cars have made drivers reluctant to transport goods from the northern city of Gao and neighbouring Niger.

“Trucks going by road from Gao and Ansongo are stopped by armed men, who steal vehicles, rob drivers and passengers and sometimes even kill the drivers,” said local Menaka politician Bajan Ag Hamatou.

According to Ag Hamaotu, hundreds of tonnes of food, including food aid, were stolen between January and July this year.

“The population is suffering,” he said.

Malnutrition

At least 715,000 children under the age of five suffer from acute malnutrition in northern Mali, OCHA says.

A recent national SMART survey found that the global acute malnutrition (GAM) rate was 12.4 percent and severe acute malnutrition (SAM) was 2.8 percent.  In Timbuktu, where much of the fighting has taken place, these rates are 17.5 percent and 3.5 percent, respectively.

WHO considers GAM rates above 10 percent to be “serious.”

“Many pregnant women and lactating mothers can’t afford to buy meat or find vegetables for themselves and their children,” said Moussa Daou, a doctor at the Cescom health clinic in Mopti, explaining that in some areas, food prices have doubled or even tripled.

Loss of grazing

Mali has been growing increasingly hotter and drier since the 1960s, with rainfall having dropped by 30 percent since 1998. The desert is expanding southward at a rate of 48 kilometres per year, forcing whole communities to migrate and pushing them on to land occupied by other groups.

Sekou Ladjou, a herder from Konna in Mali’s Mopti region, told IRIN that he has watched “the rivers dwindle and grazing land disappear,” as rainfall has become increasingly scarce.

Unable to afford fodder, some pastoralists have sold off parts of their herds in order to get cash instead that can provide basic necessities to feed their families.

Since the beginning of 2015, a new Islamist extremist group called the Massina Liberation Movement (MLM) has launched attacks in central Mali, around Ladjou’s hometown, making traditional nomadic routes and grazing lands increasingly inaccessible. In some areas, armed groups have destroyed grazing lands and water points.

“Herders don’t dare to venture far from the village and those who do risk being robbed by bandits,” Ladjou said. 

In a recent report by Human Rights Watch, farmers and traders describe being ambushed and robbed on their way to the market. As armed groups take control over areas and important trade routes, whole communities risk being trapped without access to food.

Education woes

Ongoing fighting and attacks in the region have forced some 450 schools to close, affecting the education of more than 20,500 students. At least 100 of these schools have closed since January.

Additionally, year-end examinations were interrupted in the regions of Gao, Timbuktu and Mopti, making it impossible for many students to advance a grade level or continue on to university. In Mopti’s Douentza, the absentee rate for the Diploma of Fundamental Studies examination increased from eight percent in 2013 to 19 percent this year, according to OCHA.

In some cases, the lack of education and means for families to support themselves leads to the recruitment of children by armed groups.

“Children join armed groups for many reasons, including by being lured by false promises of education, to earn an income for their families or because they believe they will be able to protect their families and village from other armed actors,” said Ramsey Ben-Achour, child protection specialist with UNICEF.

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