By Guy Hubbard
MAO, Chad, 15 February 2012 – A layer of dust cloaks the horizon around Mao, a town in Western Chad, deep in the Sahel region of Africa. Rain hasn't fallen in years, and four seasons of crops have failed. Animals have long been dying here, but lately, children have too.
|VIDEO: UNICEF correspondent Anja Baron reports on UNICEF Goodwill Ambassador Mia Farrow's visit to a therapeutic feeding centre in Chad. Watch in RealPlayer|
They are victims of an emerging nutrition crisis across the Sahel region, where, this year, an estimated 1 million children under age 5 are expected to suffer severe acute malnutrition – a potentially deadly condition. In Chad alone, that number is 127,000.
Ever-rising cases of malnutrition
The therapeutic feeding centre in Mao is a huddle of mud huts. Lately, white tents have popped up in the dusty courtyard – additions needed to care for the ever-rising numbers of malnourished children. The wards here are filled with the cries of hungry infants, but the sickest children are silent; they're too weak to cry.
Awa Abakar brought her son here two weeks ago. He had diarrhoea and was rapidly losing weight.
“The child had diarrhoea, fever and scabs on his head,” Ms. Abakar said, “so I took him to the Bira health centre. They gave him two injections and sent me to the Tula health centre, where they diagnosed severe malnutrition and then they sent me here.”
Her son is one of the lucky ones. He made it here in time, and through intense treatment, is beginning to recover.
|VIDEO: Watch the UNICEF public service announcement urging donors to assist crisis-affected children in the Sahel region of Africa. Watch in RealPlayer|
But it isn't just crop failure that's the problem. Years of conflict and instability have left the country’s health system in tatters. Access to safe drinking water and sanitation services in Chad is among the lowest in the world, causing diarrhoea and with it, malnutrition. In addition, a lack of exclusive breastfeeding and a range of harmful cultural practices have left children vulnerable and weak.
UNICEF and partners have been working with the Government of Chad to identify and respond to the crisis; last year alone, 68,000 children under age five with severe acute malnutrition were treated in UNICEF-supported feeding centres like the one in Mao.
UNICEF Goodwill Ambassador Mia Farrow visited the sand-smothered town and its therapeutic feeding centre, helping to raise awareness of the approaching nutrition crisis. She spoke to mothers and comforted malnourished children. It was her fourteenth visit to Chad and her third visit to the country on behalf of UNICEF.
“I am on my fourteenth trip to Chad, and in not one of those trips did I come away without having seen babies that were acutely malnourished,” said Ms. Farrow, holding a recovering infant in her arms. “Across the Sahel – which we are in now, in Western Chad – more than a million babies are at risk of starving in the next months. So without help, this little girl wouldn't be sitting in my arms.”
|UNICEF Goodwill Ambassador Mia Farrow visits a UNICEF supply warehouse in the western city of Mao, in Chad.|
Need for immediate help
Ms. Farrow also visited UNICEF's warehouse, where boxes of critical nutritional supplements are being prepared for distribution across the entire Kanem region. Although the warehouse is packed to the rafters, the need is so great that supplies won't last long.
“It felt good to see the warehouse where UNICEF has stocked three months’ worth of life-saving therapeutic foods,” she said. “But three months isn't going to be enough.”
She also visited a garden on the outskirts of Mao where the UN's Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) is fighting the desert to grow a small oasis of crops like onions and potatoes. Programmes like these will be essential to create sustainable nutrition solutions for the future.
Ms. Farrow left Mao with an urgent plea to the world to respond to a crisis that UNICEF fears may only get worse.
“The world hears little about the emergency in the Sahel,” she said, “and without immediate help, there is no hope.”