Nutritional Crisis in D.R. Congo: Nutritional Situation Critical in Lubumbashi, Democratic Republic of the Congo

ACF faces heaviest caseload of severely malnourished ever faced in one location

While international media attention is focused on the after-effects of the war in Iraq, forgotten humanitarian crises continue in areas of nominal peace, like Lubumbashi, where the humanitarian aid organization Action Against Hunger / Action Contre la Faim (ACF) continues to face a steady and large surge in the malnourished population.

The current caseload of severely malnourished patients in Lubumbashi, DRC, makes it the largest ever faced by Action Against Hunger in 24 years of activities in places such as Sudan, Ethiopia, Somalia, Afghanistan and now Iraq.

As of May, there were 828 patients suffering from severe malnutrition and 3733 suffering from moderate malnutrition registered in Action Against Hunger's feeding centers. A total of 1.606 patients were admitted in April including 292 new cases of severe malnutrition. Most of these new cases are children under five years of age. Severe malnutrition is the form of malnutrition most likely to lead to death, if untreated. Compared to the 88 new patients admitted in the month of December with severe malnutrition, this represents a 332% increase in the rates of admission in only four months.

"The population of Lubumbashi, once the economic center of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, have run out of coping strategies to deal with the continual onslaught of hardships brought on by the current war, 32 years of kleptocratic rule of Mobutu, and the drought in southern Africa" says Cathy Skoula, Action Against Hunger's Head of Mission in the DRC.

Action Against Hunger has worked in Lubumbashi since 1999. Lubumbashi is the capital of Katanga Province and the second city of the country in terms of political prestige. It is the home to a population of 1.500.000 people, to 35,000 internally displaced persons, to the national parliament and to Gecamines. Gecamines is a large copper mining company that in the past provided very well for the population: Several thousands of the population were employed by that company, which provided good salaries and benefits - health care, food, and education & as such, provided the whole province with economic activity.

The DRC has been embroiled in a major international conflict on its soil since 1998, bringing untold miseries to the Congolese, 3 Millions of whom are estimated to have died as a direct consequence of the conflict. A peace agreement signed in December 2002 led to hopes that humanitarian crises would subside. However, nominal peace in the DRC has yet to translate into direct benefits for the population. Many employees have not been paid in over a year. Two years ago, Gecamines had to fire 100,000 employees. Two months ago, Gecamines had to fire another 20,000. A second major company in the region, Forest Enterprises, newly formed, is also in economic difficulties. To cope, many families do not send children to school and many scrimp on health care. Increasingly, families send children to the streets to fend for themselves, whether by begging, stealing or prostitution, if only to reduce the number of persons eating from the family plate.

In addition, because the corn production regions that formally supplied Lubumbashi with one of its staples (the other being manioc) are behind rebel lines and because the area around Lubumbashi is unsuitable for the production of large amounts of corn, most of the corn needed by Lubumbashi must be imported from the south. The ongoing drought has resulted in a decrease in the amount of corn available in Lubumbashi.

It is the conjunction of decreasing cash and food availability that has led to the present nutritional crisis, which shows no signs of abating. A recent FAO household economy survey estimates that 20% of the population eat only once every other day and that 50% eat only once per day. A nutritional survey performed by Action Against Hunger in January found that 5.3% of the children under five living in Lubumbashi suffer from acute malnutrition.

Action Against Hunger calls on all parties with a stake in the DRC peace process to ensure that humanitarian assistance, in kind and in cash, is provided to civilians immediately to avert a further deterioration of the nutritional situation that could soon lead to a significant surge in mortality. Peace should not be used as a smokescreen for the current humanitarian emergency in Lubumbashi.