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UNICEF distributes biscuits to malnourished children during ‘rat flood’ food crisis

© Kiron/UNICEF
Puja, 11 months, and Jackson, 4, eat enriched biscuits provided by UNICEF to families in the Chittagong Hill Tracts region of Bangladesh.

By Kathryn Seymour

BELAICHARI, Bangladesh, 26 August 2008 – UNICEF and the UN World Food Programme (WFP) are distributing food relief in the Chittagong Hill Tracts region of south-eastern Bangladesh, where a plague of rats is devastating crops and triggering a food crisis.

“It is the time of the rat flood,” says Purno Chandra Chakma, a farmer in remote Belaichari. “They’ve come out of the jungle and are everywhere.”

The explosion of the rodent population is due to the cyclical flowering of giant bamboo, which occurs roughly every 50 years. Rats feed on the fruits, and are able to breed and multiply much faster than normal because of the surplus food.

The current flowering began in 2007. The last time the region experienced this bizarre phenomenon was in 1959.

Crops destroyed

Having devoured much of the bamboo flowers and fruit in the Chittagong Hill Tracts, the most recent plague of rats began eating their way through paddy and vegetable crops late last year. In some areas, the rats destroyed up to 90 per cent of the last harvest.

“I used to have rice, sesame, turmeric, cucumber and chilli in my field, but the rats have eaten most of the plants,” says Niron Kumar Chakma, a farmer with two small children. “We have already eaten everything that we collected from that last harvest. Our next harvest won’t be until September.”

Food is already scarce and nutrition is poor in this part of the country. Decades of civil unrest, combined with the remote locations of many villages and the difficult, hilly terrain, have slowed development. Most people survive through jhum farming, a form of slash-and-burn cultivation in which a variety of seed crops are planted together. Yields are often low, yet this year is far worse than usual.

Less food than ever

Almost 130,000 people in the Chittagong Hill Tracts are now suffering from severe food shortages because of the rat crisis.

“March through June is always a lean period,” says Rajan Mala Chakma, a mother of five. “By July, things are normally alright, but this year – because of the rats – we are having many problems.”

In some of the most severely affected communities, people are eating the rats, yet this has not helped stave off the crisis. Rising food prices, globally and across Bangladesh, have also compounded the problem of food insecurity in the Hill Tracts region.

Nutrition for children and mothers

WFP has already supplied rice, iodized salt and cooking oil to 25,680 of the families worst affected by the food crisis.

© Kiron/UNICEF
There are very few roads in the area so some beneficiaries, like Halabi, travel long distances to collect their ration of biscuits, rice and oil.

To enhance the nutritional content of these rations, UNICEF is supplementing the food distribution with fortified biscuits for children. Children are most vulnerable to nutritional deficits and are often the first to succumb during a food shortage.

Thus far, 11,280 families have received the fortified biscuits. A second round of biscuits will be distributed to these same families over the coming month.

UNICEF is also supplying micronutrient powder ‘food sprinkles’ to 11,794 children under five, 6,003 adolescent girls, 1,201 pregnant women and 1,028 lactating mothers in the affected region over the next four months to help boost their nutritional status.

“The rice and biscuits are very helpful during this lean time,” says Niron Kumar Chakma. “Before receiving this food today, we had been forced to reduce our usual three meals a day to only one meal.” 

Relief distribution of emergency rations will continue for at least one month.



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