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UNICEF and partners respond to a drought and nutrition emergency in Chad

'If it doesn’t rain, we will die'

MAO, Chad, 24 January 2011 – After four weeks in a hospital feeding centre, Fatime, 5, weighs 7 kg – less than half what a child her age should weigh. This is good news.

VIDEO: UNICEF's Jonah Fisher reports on the growing nutrition emergency facing children in Chad, and UNICEF's support for prevention and treatment of acute malnutrition there.  Watch in RealPlayer


When she arrived, lying limp in her mother Halima Owye’s arms, she weighed even less. Two siblings had already died from nutrition-related diseases. Worried that her other two children would perish, Ms. Owye bundled them onto a camel to find help in the city of Mao, hundreds of kilometres across the Sahelian desert.

“At the start, I was very scared because Fatime had fever and diarrhoea. But I know it’s up to God what happens, so I have faith in him,” she says as she feeds her frail daughter therapeutic milk.

The Owyes are nomads. Fatime’s father used to trade in camels, but after the recent drought, the family could not afford to keep them. The father left for Libya in search of work, and his family has not seen him for seven months.

© UNICEF Chad/2010/Bloemen
Zara Abakar, 20, with her four children, one of whom is a patient in a UNICEF-supported feeding centre in Chad.

Acute malnutrition

UNICEF estimates that one in three children is malnourished in Kanem, the district of northern Chad where the Owye family lives. According to the findings from a recent UNICEF/World Health Organization (WHO) nutrition survey, acute malnutrition rates in the Sahel often surpass WHO’s emergency threshold of 15 per cent.

Hunger is not new to the Sahel, which lies below the Sahara region. Each year over the past decade, less rain fell, reducing both human food production and animal feed. According to government estimates, food production in Kanem District in 2010 was around 8,000 tonnes – enough to provide only four months of sustenance for the population.

“There’s been no rain, and that’s why our farming has failed again,” says Zara Abakar, 20. Already a mother of four, one of whom is a patient in a feeding centre, Ms. Abakar adds that she cannot afford to buy food. Her husband, like Mr Owye and many men in the district, left in search of work. He returns once a year with a small of amount of money from construction work or small-scale trading.

Weak health system

The situation has resulted in a nutrition crisis that is difficult to address.

© UNICEF Chad/2010/Bloemen
Mothers and children at a community clinic in Chad, where UNICEF is working with the Ministry of Health and NGO partners to identify and treat malnourished children.

“The distances are immense and there are no roads, only sandy dirt tracks that those who know the desert can navigate,” says UNICEF Nutrition Specialist John Ntambi.

Compounding the problem is the country’s weak health system. In Kanem District, there are only five doctors to treat 350,000 people, which means treatable illness easily become life-threatening.

Community clinics

UNICEF is working with Chad’s Ministry of Health and non-governmental partners to expand a network of community clinics equipped to identify and treat malnourished children. There are now 204 feeding centres – an increase from 145 in 2009.

These clinics have become the front line for saving lives or even preventing children from becoming as sick as Fatime. At one such clinic in Nokou District, Centre De Sante De Mampal, 20 women sit with their children on the concrete floor. The distance between the clinic and the Mao hospital is only 25 km, but it can take hours through the sandy desert on a donkey or camel. That can mean the difference between life and death.

© UNICEF Chad/2010/Bloemen
A child's upper-arm circumference is measured to determine nutritional status in Chad, where UNICEF is supporting an innovative pilot programme designed to prevent acute malnutrtion.

Each child is weighed and, if he or she is underweight, the mother is given Plumpy’nut, a sweet-tasting paste made from peanuts, peanut oil, powdered milk and sugar, and fortified with vitamins and minerals.

Plumpy’nut does not require refrigeration or water. Each packet contains around 500 calories.

‘We don’t have any crops’

Since July, the front-line clinics also have been running an innovative pilot programme to prevent acute malnutrition. Any child whose mother stops exclusive breastfeeding between the ages of six months and two years – when children are most at risk of becoming malnourished – receives a week’s ration of the Plumpy’nut. So far, the initiative has reached 23,000 children. 

But the sands of the Sahara desert to the north are blowing heavily upon the Sahel region, threatening to sustain the nutrition crisis.

“It doesn’t rain anymore, and if it doesn’t rain, we will die,” says Hedeta Maina, 70, looking out across her sandy village in Nokou and recalling the days when the Sahel was green and there were plenty of camels, goats and even wild animals.

“We don’t know what we’re going to do. We don’t have any crops. We don’t have any animals anymore. The only thing left for us to do is pray to God – and maybe get some help.”



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