Thousands Face Starvation in Southern D.R. Congo

ACF addresses massive childhood malnutrition crisis in country’s forgotten region.
Malnourished Children in Southern D.R. Congo, courtesy ACF-Congo

KANANGA & MBUJI-MAYI, D.R CONGO—The global humanitarian group Action Against Hunger | ACF International is calling for urgent action to treat the thousands of children with severe acute malnutrition in the Kasai provinces of southern Democratic Republic of Congo. Recent nutrition surveys uncovered an alarming number of children with the life-threatening condition in an area largely neglected by international donors, who are focused on the country’s war-torn eastern region.

Action Against Hunger has fanned out across the area in an effort to contain the crisis. In coordination with local authorities, ACF teams treated 6,500 severely malnourished children in 16 health zones in Kasai Oriental and Occidental during the first half of 2009. In the majority of Kasai zones surveyed, more than 10% of children are suffering from acute malnutrition—a proportion that exceeds the emergency level designated by the Congolese Ministry of Health.

“We admitted more children into our therapeutic nutrition programs in southern Congo during the first six months of this year than we did throughout the entire country in all of 2008,” said Karine Milhorgne, Action Against Hunger’s Desk Officer for D.R. Congo. “While the Congo’s troubled east continues to receive the bulk of international funding, Kasai is undergoing a silent emergency that requires our attention.”

Action Against Hunger’s strategy combines direct intervention on behalf of affected children with technical and logistical support for local actors working in the region. Treatment for severe acute malnutrition—a condition caused when nutrient-deprived bodies consume their own tissues—involves an intensive therapeutic regimen designed to jump-start children’s metabolisms.

“The gravity of the situation requires that we scale-up treatment programs,” said Marie-Sophie Whitney, Senior Nutrition Advisor for Action Against Hunger. “Even though this area no longer bears the brunt of the violence, donors should still consider it an emergency.”

A confluence of factors has contributed to this nutritional crisis. The economy of southern Congo, which is rich in diamonds, gold, and nickel, was devastated during the global financial downturn when the price of minerals plummeted and mining companies closed. Many workers previously engaged in the mineral industry shifted to agriculture production to eke out a living but have struggled without the appropriate skills and access to seeds and tools.

“Hundreds of thousands of Congolese lost their jobs and livelihoods when the mining industry collapsed and have returned to their villages to find nothing,” Milhorgne said.

In addition to its work in Kasai, Action Against Hunger carries out programs in nutrition, food security, and water and sanitation in Province Orientale, Katanga, North and South Kivu, Bandundu, and Kinshasa. It has been in the country since 1996.