Hungry season sets in early

The poorest households in Chad will find themselves with no food reserves in the coming weeks, according to the US famine early warning systems network, FEWSNET.

FEWSNET’s prediction of the country’s food situation from January until June says the poorest households, notably in pastoral regions, will be forced to resort to harsh strategies such as selling off their productive assets, cutting food intake, and mass migration to more hospitable areas.

According to the government, erratic or late rains led to a 2009 harvest that was 30 percent less than in recent years, and two million people who would normally still be living off the land are having trouble affording food.

Estimates do not take into account the populations living in the remote northern desert regions of Tibesti, Borkou and Ennedi, which cover almost half the country.

These sparsely populated regions are readily accessible only by helicopter, and are heavily mined from previous conflicts and have few projects funded by international agencies.

Underweight children

A nutrition survey conducted last December in Bahr El Ghazel, a semi-arid pastoral region in the west of the country, showed that 27 percent of the 687 under five children surveyed were underweight. This is almost double the emergency threshold set by the World Health Organization at 15 percent.

Loan Tran-Thanh, the head of Action Against Hunger (ACF) in Chad which conducted the survey, told IRIN the results were alarming.

"This was at the end of the harvest period when malnutrition rates should be lower than [during] the lean rain season,” she said. “If it is already that high in a harvest period, then how bad could it get during the hunger gap season?"

In the nearby district of Noukou in western Kanem region bordering Niger, 19 percent of 540 children surveyed had acute levels of malnutrition.

Acute malnutrition tends to change based on the season, as opposed to chronic malnutrition which results from year-round lack of life-enriching nutrients.

The region has always had chronic malnutrition, said Tran-Thanh, who has worked in Chad since 2004.

Animals wasted to death

"When ACF arrived in the Kanem region, all the attention was in the east [of Chad] with the violence in [neighbouring] Darfur. The rains this year did exacerbate acute malnutrition in Kanem and the areas we surveyed, but these are zones that have always had chronic hunger problems,” she said.

Because of lack of funds, ACF closed its Kanem office but returned to the region in 2008 with funding from the European Commission Humanitarian Aid (ECHO).

Animals in the pastoral zones from the western Kanem region to the eastern region of Biltine wasted to death when pastures dried out because of late 2009 rains, according to the government.

Cattle that survived the erratic rains had problems reproducing and producing milk, according to a government and multi-agency survey in October 2009.

The survey says the animals and their herders started heading south in late October seeking greener pastures - months before the typical migration season.

This "first strategy of nomadic herders” will lead to conflicts between herders and farmers, according to the survey.

Dwindling grazing and cultivable land has led to bloody clashes between pastoralists and farmers in at least two of Chad's neighbouring countries, Sudan and Nigeria.

Emergency needs

The government has about 23,000 tons of cereals, 350 tons of rice seeds and 200 sacks of animal feed, but "the fight against malnutrition is an emergency operation and needs more", said Chadian Minister of Economy Ousmane Mater Brémé.

The UN Food and Agriculture Organization has pledged $500,000 worth of animal feed for the arid Bahr El Ghazel region and $1 million worth of seeds for the regions referred to as the Sahelian band in west and central Chad.

The UN Children's Fund, World Food Programme and ACF are also preparing to open more than 100 nutritional feeding centres in the same regions.

The agencies will distribute 50,000 cartons of high-energy `Plumpy'nut’ peanut paste and give high fat `Plumpy'doz’ brown paste supplement to 45,000 children aged 6-23 months during the peak hunger months from May to August.

ACF is analyzing findings from its water, sanitation and food security assessment studies conducted in Bahr El Ghazel, Tran-Thanh told IRIN.

"If we do not address the underlying issues of malnutrition - Is there access to water or health services? - then malnutrition will continue to exist. The trouble with addressing all these different issues is that there are just not enough actors coming together to study [the various facets]."