UNICEF NZ Urges Quick Response to Sahel Crisis

Wednesday 14 March 2012, 4:30PM
By UNICEF New Zealand

UNICEF NZ (UN Children's Fund) welcomes today's announcement of funding by the New Zealand Government for the looming food crisis in the Sahel region of West Africa, but warns that we must all act now to stop children dying as they did in the Horn of Africa.

Dennis McKinlay, Executive Director of UNICEF NZ, said "In 2010 UNICEF and other agencies began to warn the world of an impending disaster in the Horn of Africa, but it wasn't until the middle of 2011, when the situation was desperate and children were already losing their lives, that the emergency received sufficient attention and funding.

"UNICEF has always stressed that early warning on humanitarian developments needs to be followed by early action but this also requires early donations. Funding announced by the New Zealand government today is recognition that this crisis could become a humanitarian disaster.

"The reality is that in the Sahel an estimated one million young children are in danger of becoming severely malnourished. UNICEF is already on the ground in the affected areas but our biggest challenge is again not having enough funds to save lives.This situation does not need to escalate into a full-scale emergency - we have a window of opportunity to avoid a devastating outcome if we take action now."

In the Sahel region drought has returned after an erratic and late 2011 rainy season, bringing hunger to millions of people for the third time in a decade. Inconsistent rains, poor harvests, severe food insecurity and high fuel costs have created a crisis situation with famine looming. The 'lean season' - when food stocks from the last harvest run out - normally begins in June but the reality is that it could start imminently in some countries. Humanitarian needs cut across the Sahel belt, and include the entire countries of Burkina Faso, Chad, Mali, and Niger and the northern regions of Cameroon, Nigeria and Senegal. The situation is further compounded in Mauritania which faces an unprecedented double emergency, as refugees fleeing conflict in Mali cross into areas in the South East. This puts increased pressure on already limited resources. UNICEF is appealing for US$67m, for the first half of 2012, to help affected countries across the Sahelian belt stop this crisis in its tracks. McKinlay added, "Countries in the Sahel region in West Africa, such as Niger, Chad and Mali, are extremely poor with some of the highest child mortality rates in the world. People were already living on the edge and this drought could be the tipping point."

Malnutrition is caused by inadequate food quality and quantity, a lack of sanitation, inadequate care, and a lack of health services. UNICEF is helping to alleviate these issues by providing emergency food, water and sanitation, and healthcare to help children who could die very soon without assistance.

Specially developed ready-to-use therapeutic foods are the best way to treat severe acute malnutrition among children under five, so they have a chance to survive and recover. Therapeutic foods are low in cost but high in effectiveness, yet the biggest challenge UNICEF faces is getting sufficient amounts of these critical foods to children as the need increases in the coming months. McKinlay said, "We know from our experience in the Horn of Africa, where UNICEF and partners treated millions of children suffering from malnutrition and disease, that life-saving measures don't have to cost a lot - special foods for malnourished children cost as little as 70NZ cents. "We couldn't have achieved this level of support without the help of New Zealanders who raised over $700k for our work in the area. It's now that we call on the generosity of New Zealanders again, to give what they can and help ensure that the children of the Sahel can survive to see a better future." Although UNICEF's first aim is to meet the immediate needs of those affected, the charity also aims to address the underlying and structural causes of malnutrition. UNICEF will therefore roll out an integrated package of interventions aimed at strengthening resilience of vulnerable communities and improving basic service delivery and social protection systems.

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