Sahel Crisis: Nutritional Emergency Begins in Chad’s Kanem Region

Action Against Hunger scales up operations to address food shortages, treat more than 20,000 severely malnourished children
Assama Ali with 8-month-old Ousmane

For months humanitarian actors have sounded the alarm in anticipation of an impending regional food crisis due to shortages, price hikes, and drought. One million children are at risk of severe acute malnutrition. The impact of this slow-onset crisis is now being felt, much earlier and more severely than expected, as populations in Kanem, Western Chad, experience a telling spike in malnutrition rates. More than 2,000 severely malnourished children were admitted for therapeutic nutritional care in Kanem last month alone—more than three times the number in the same month last year—and our teams are alarmed at the critical state in which many of these children arrive as it suggests a rapidly deteriorating nutritional crisis.

“In November and December of last year, we saw an influx of malnourished children but they were at least in a state that allowed us to treat them without too many complications. Now, children are arriving in such an advanced state of malnutrition that we cannot always save them. Many are dying on their way to our centers, which is something we rarely saw in previous months.”

Clemence Malet, Action Against Hunger Nutritionist

In Kanem, more than 60 percent of the population lives in a permanent state of food insecurity. Additionally, communities are still recovering from previous food crises, making this year’s instability all the more dramatic. Those conditions have contributed to a haunting countrywide statistic in Chad—one in ten children die before they turn one, and one in five before their fifth birthday.

One such unlucky little one was a 16-month-old girl named Achta, who was admitted for therapeutic nutritional care at the hospital in the village of Mao. She arrived weighing just 11 pounds, her severe acute malnutrition compounded by diarrhea. Five nurses went to work on Achta, trying for over an hour to find a vein to give her fluids. But her heart rate was already so low, and breathing so slowed, that the diagnosis was grim. Achta didn’t make it through the night.

Chad’s haunting new reality: one in ten children die before their first birthday; one in five before their fifth birthday

Scaling up: Mobile nutrition units, food distributions

It’s experiences like this that inspire our staff to scale up our efforts as much as possible. This is the time to do it; the so-called lean season, a period of food shortage in between harvests, has begun two months early in Kanem. Many families have had no stock of food for weeks. In response to this critical lack of food, our teams have launched large-scale emergency food distributions in coordination with colleague NGOs in the region.

In response to the widening nutritional crisis we’re ramping up the operations of our 20 mobile nutrition units to proactively identify and treat malnourished children before it’s too late. The teams anticipate reaching more than 20,000 children in Kanem and the neighboring province of Bahr el Ghazal. To support this effort we’ve opened a new base in central Chad to cut down on logistical challenges and transportation time.

Livestock is the main source of sustenance in Kanem and farmers depend on their animals to survive. As drought-like conditions reduce pasture lands for grazing, the region’s livestock have suffered heavy losses, leaving farmers without income to buy food for their families. The United Kingdom government’s Department for International Development (DFID) has funded a livestock protection program that provides veterinary services and distributes feed to help farmers salvage their herds and weather the crisis without having to sell at rock-bottom prices.

Making a difference, one child at a time

Families are already starting to see positive results. Two weeks ago, a Chadian mother named Assama walked more than five miles from her home in the village of Senet to a therapeutic nutrition center we’ve run in Mondo for the past eight months. She brought in her 8-month-old son Ousmane, who weighed little more than a newborn should. Assama had tried an outpatient nutrition center for Ousmane first, but he continued to lose weight, vomited frequently, and had no appetite. She explained that her family’s income potential as grain farmers was destroyed by the lack of harvest, and that inflation was making it next to impossible for her to buy enough food for her three children.

“I don’t eat enough, there’s nothing to eat in Senet,” Assama explained when her son was first admitted. “As a result, I have almost no milk for Ousmane. I can’t breastfeed him enough, which makes him malnourished. He is suffering.”

But now, after seeing her son receive lifesaving care, she’s hopeful.

“For Ousmane, things are getting better. He’s regaining his appetite. He’s drinking milk. Along with the staff at the nutrition center, I am helping take good care of him. Everything is so much better than when we first arrived.”

Assama Ali, mother of 8-month-old ACF nutrition program beneficiary Ousmane

And we’re hopeful, too. The challenges developing across the Sahel are substantial, but we’re committed to helping thousands of children get through this crisis while putting longer-term programs in place to mitigate future crises.

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