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Severe food shortages in western Chad lead to rising malnutrition in children

© UNICEF Video
A child drinks therapeutic milk at the feeding centre in Mao, western Chad.
 

Mao, Chad, 24 March 2010 – Adam Abdulai is just over a year old, but he can barely move, let alone stand up and walk. He and a dozen other emaciated children lie on mattresses at a feeding centre in Mao, western Chad, with their mothers and grandmothers watching over them helplessly.

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"We didn't have much food when I was pregnant. I was eating boule [millet-based paste] once or twice a day during my pregnancy," says Hawa, Adam's mother.

"I got very sick and weak after the birth. I could not breastfeed him properly. At the centre they have told us how important it is to breastfeed," she adds.

Hawa receives therapeutic milk at the UNICEF-supported centre so that she can feed Adam every three hours. A few days later, Adam has been brought back to life. He is alert and able to move his tiny hands.

Therapeutic feeding: 'A critical lifeline'
Malnutrition rates are increasing in western Chad's Kanem Region, where Mao is located, as the region is gripped by severe food shortages due to a lack of rain. The situation is exacerbated by local communities' very limited access to basic health care and safe drinking water.

"Without the therapeutic feeding centre here, there would be a lot more deaths and an even bigger catastrophe," says Chief District Medical Officer Dr. Mekonyo Kolmain Gedeon. "We can see the change in health with children admitted. After only a few weeks ... they are able to go home.

"These feeding centres are a critical lifeline for children living in this region. We need more of these centres in order to save more lives," he adds.

In 2009, around 8,000 children were treated at 32 feeding centres in the Kanem region. The centres were established by the Chadian Ministry of Health and receive support from UNICEF to provide therapeutic food and medical treatment.

"At the moment, we have 2,800 children benefitting from the programme," says UNICEF Representative in Chad Marzio Babille. "While severe acute malnutrition is an emergency, a rapid response with appropriate medical care and technology can save lives."

Severe drought conditions
Changing weather patterns here have led to severe droughts in Chad, crippling local agriculture and causing chronic food shortages, according to local assessments.

The harvest in 2009 was a disaster. Production of sorghum and millet, the main staple food crops, declined by an estimated 22 per cent and 34 per cent, respectively, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO).

Some 2 million people are now in need of food aid in Chad, most of them in the western region. The World Food Programme and FAO have responded to the immediate needs and are planning to distribute additional aid.

"We used to have plenty of food here, but we don't get as much rain anymore and there is more and more sand everywhere," said Adam's grandmother. Mao and the surrounding area used to be home to a huge pastoral and farming community, but a shortage of viable land to grow crops has had a crippling effect.

Effects of desertification
The lack of vegetation is also killing cattle. Around 31 per cent of the herd in the region perished in 2009, according to FAO, and there are concerns that the number of deaths will increase this year.

With little local produce on the market, most food is transported from other parts of the country, leading to huge price increases. As a result, many parents are unable to feed their children.

Tackling malnutrition at an early stage is key here. In the village of Barrah, 20 km from the centre of Mao, a UNICEF-supported clinic provides monitoring and treatment for severely malnourished children.

Zara Hassan visits every week with her two-year-old to receive supplies of Plumpy'nut, a high-protein peanut paste fortified with vitamins and minerals.  The child is three kilos underweight, but nurses say she is slowly gaining.

Meanwhile, Zara and her family struggle to feed themselves after losing all their crops to desertification. "All of this land used to be full of millet," she says, pointing to the land surrounding her hut. "Now all of our food has turned to dust."

By Salma Zulfiqar

 

 
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