Pockets of extreme vulnerability persist

Good rains in much of northern Mali over recent months have caused pasture to regenerate and animals to begin to recover in parts of Gao, Timbuktu and Kidal regions, but extreme vulnerability persists for Gao-based farming communities, who have exhausted all their coping mechanisms and are unable to recover their livelihoods, say aid agencies.

“The pastoralist crisis is on the point of ending... and the price of animals is rising again, but for non-pastoral communities who depend on a good harvest, we have not yet seen the end. We are still in the peak of crisis, and emergency activities need to continue,” said Philippe Conraud, Oxfam’s West Africa emergency coordinator.

Rains started slowly in June but became more intense in mid-July and August in much of the north, according to Action Against Hunger (ACF), and have continued into September.

The practice of seasonal livestock movements has again picked up in much of the north, and the latest US Agency for International Development FEWS NET report predicted the 258,000 food-insecure would start to meet more of their food needs in coming months, though they may continue to face moderate food insecurity until the end of the year.

Grain prices have risen to the five-year average, and the price of goats and sheep is rising to pre-crisis levels - up to US$50 from just $10 per animal in the peak of the pastoralist crisis, estimates head of NGO Agronomes et Vétérinaires sans Frontières (AVSF) Marc Chapon.

But sedentary, farming communities in Gao continue to live in a situation of extreme stress as the pre-harvest lean season continues. They lack the option to up and leave to greener pastures, and must wait until harvest to repay debts. Repeat shocks, including the 2008 food price crisis and repeat drought have led households to go into extreme debt, said ACF head in Mali David Kerespars, and Oxfam’s Conraud.

ACF estimates 40 percent of households in Ansongo, on the Niger river in Gao are in debt and have no means to pay back creditors. Without help, Conraud predicts, “in the middle and long-term it could get even worse.”

Global acute malnutrition rates among under-fives in Ansongo are 18.5 percent, according to ACF’s latest June nutrition assessment, up from 15.9 percent at the same time in 2009.

With UK backing, ACF runs therapeutic feeding clinics through 17 regional health centres, and is providing wider food security interventions to all under fives to prevent them from becoming malnourished. Cases of acute malnutrition with complications are referred to regional health centres.

Photo: ReliefWeb

Meanwhile, across the north, the government is subsidizing grain prices, and aid agencies, including the World Food Programme (WFP), the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF), the International Committee of the Red Cross, ACF, Oxfam, Save the Children and CARE, continue to support the government’s response efforts to treat malnourished children, provide supplementary food, food and healthcare for animals, and help improve stock management.

Variegated vulnerability

Vulnerability is highly variegated among different livelihood groups in the north, say aid agencies.

In areas surveyed in the Kidal and Timbuktu regions, global acute malnutrition is no higher than 10 percent, estimates UNICEF’s nutrition manager Katrien Ghoos, though UNICEF’s recent malnutrition assessment results are yet to be verified or published.

While pastoralists are also highly vulnerable to shock, given “they have milk and animals, but no alternatives,” and their acute malnutrition tends to rise sharply in a crisis, their prospects can shift dramatically when grazing land improves as animals are quick to recover milk production.

Semi-sedentary agro-pastoralist populations who settle for months at a time along the River Niger, are slightly more protected from shock, says ACF’s Kerespars. “They have more ability to cope with shocks such as droughts as they can migrate, find odd jobs, do artisanal work, or borrow money,” he said.

But the poorest of these communities in Gao have also exhausted their coping mechanisms, and are finding it hard to turn to short-term construction or labour in the fields, which can supplement over half of their income, given such work opportunities are down by a third this year, according to FEWS NET.

Early recovery

Early recovery efforts must start as soon as possible to help people bring their livelihoods back to pre-crisis levels, says Conraud.

Oxfam hopes to start a cash transfer programme to help households pay off their debts and avoid having to sell grain at rock-bottom prices. The NGO and other aid agencies are meeting donors to try to encourage them to support such middle-term recovery efforts.

The need to get communities back on their feet is all the more important, given the likelihood of northern communities facing more problems in the future, say aid agency representatives. The problems facing northern Mali - including drought, ongoing tension over pastoralist routes, continually growing populations, and ongoing insecurity - are not going to go away, warned WFP head Alice Martin-Dahirou.