Hamadou and Nafissa have 8 children and their story is that of millions of families in Niger, with the difference that at least they have not suffered the blow of the Boko Haram guerrillas. The drought has ruined their orchard, which leads to failed harvests, and they have to go to the market to buy millet, a cereal that makes up practically their entire diet and that has become 30% more expensive in the last year alone. At first they ate twice a day, then once, and when things got really complicated, only on alternate days. They have two hens and a goat that they don't even think of sacrificing because they get eggs from one and milk from the other, that is when a rickety sprout appears to browse. Sometimes it is the younger children who do not eat. It is a survival strategy, because it is the adults and adolescents who bring sustenance home, and to do so their starving bodies need to harbor a spark of energy. Only the strongest remain.
Unicef launched this week an alert with biblical connotations. According to its executive director, Catherine Russell, the child population of the Horn of Africa and the Sahel could die in “devastating numbers” due to the drought that is hitting the continent and that has triggered severe malnutrition, diarrhea and cholera due to the poor condition of water used for human consumption. A fact: in Ethiopia, Kenya and Somalia there are 16 million people without access to this vital resource, when only five months ago they were half.
José María Vega, head of Unicef in Spain, points out that climate change is the main person responsible for this situation becoming chronic and exacerbated, "which translates into prolonged droughts and a decrease in water capacity of 40% in the last 20 years, which already makes it a structural phenomenon». But the picture includes more unwelcome guests. Like the proliferation of armed conflicts, often within the borders of the country itself, "which cause the displacement of large population centers to sterile, deserted places, stripped of their farmland and livestock."
The search for water is a priority for people and livestock. A precious resource whose poor condition is behind cholera or diarrhoea. /
Physical and cognitive sequelae
Also the economic crisis derived from the pandemic, "which has destroyed thousands of families who lived day to day and whom the long periods of confinement have deprived of the meager mattress that the most fortunate enjoyed." Add to this "speculation arising from grain shortages caused by the blockade of Ukrainian and Russian exports and the result is a perfect storm unprecedented in recent history," he warns.
Children are the most vulnerable victims. Andrés Conde, general director of Save The Children for Spain, has just returned from Niger and his diagnosis is dramatic. "Fourteen million children suffer from severe acute malnutrition, which in medical terminology is the stepping stone to death." In Somalia alone, it is estimated that this summer 350,000 children will succumb to hunger, when in 2011, a date marked in red in the annals of humanitarian aid, 133,000 children lost their lives, which shoots projections to maddening limits.
A drama, says Conde, that will also haunt the survivors. “An adult can withstand temporary food deprivation without suffering after-effects, but that does not work the same with children. If at the age of 5, 6 or 7 they do not receive the necessary nutrients for a prolonged period, they will suffer irreversible consequences in their physical and cognitive development. Malnutrition causes, for example, blindness, but those who suffer from it develop poorer intellectual capacities, which translates into very limited generations for the future.
They are heartbreaking data, even more so when there is treatment that allows 95% of the victims to recover, reveals Conde. «All organizations work with what is called 'ready-to-use therapeutic food'. Pumplinut is a cocoa butter that is distributed in sachets and administered three times a day for six or eight weeks and that allows these children to be snatched from the clutches of death. The price of each of these patterns ranges between 1 and 1.5 euros, depending on the distributor... and on the moment: since May its price has risen 21%, partly due to the war in Ukraine, and the transport now lasts six months instead of the usual four.
Comparisons may be odious, but that has not prevented the World Bank from doing the math and drawing colours. There are four countries on the planet where the mortality rate exceeds 100 deaths per thousand children under 5 years of age and they are all in Africa (Somalia and Nigeria lead the sordid ranking). But it is that the following seven, in the fringe and between 80 and 100 deaths, is also covered by the same continent.
José María Vega blames climate change directly. "It is still curious that those who have contributed the least to global warming and carbon emissions are the ones who are paying the most," he slips bitterly. "Add to this a weak structure, the result of not having promoted local agriculture and its diversification, and the result is countries with a dependence of up to 90% on supply chains -grain, fuel, fertilizers- marked by insecurity, instability and financial speculation».
In this apocalyptic scenario, diseases roam their respects. And not only cholera or diarrhea, but also AIDS or measles. «The covid and the stress it has placed on fragile health systems has led to a setback in childhood vaccination rates, to the point that 25 million children have stopped receiving the basic 'kit' that was previously almost universal. . And this is like this for the first time in many decades”, says Vera.
"There is what you see"
"The number of people affected by humanitarian crises in the Sahel and the Horn of Africa has increased 11-fold in just six years." Says María Alcázar, director of International Cooperation of the Red Cross, who considers the current state of affairs "unsustainable". « Urgent humanitarian aid is needed, because there are people who already need food and medical treatment for malnutrition». But she warns of the danger of staying on the surface and not addressing the root of the problem, "because otherwise this cycle would be perpetuated forever." The improvement and diversification of crops, helping people so that they can get the most out of those lands, facilitating access to drinking water -for them and their livestock- are some of the solutions that she proposes.
of children under 5 are chronically malnourished in Africa and two out of five women of reproductive age are anemic.
euro per day for between 6 and 8 weeks costs the treatment of Pumplinut (cocoa butter) so that a malnourished child regains strength.
Percentage below which the amount of aid received to meet the needs raised in the hardest hit regions is located.
«The degree of exposure that crises have is proportional to the resources that are mobilized to address them. If a conflict is not seen, it does not exist directly, ”reflects Alcázar. «When crises develop slowly (inflation, trade, insecurity, climate change...) they tend to attract much less attention than a punctual outbreak, such as an earthquake or a hurricane. And this is so because the cause-effect relationships are usually more complicated to establish and have also become chronic, which does not fit with a society that works increasingly based on stimuli.
We jump from one drama to another: pandemic, eruption of La Palma, war in Ukraine, fires... «There is a certain saturation and there is a risk that it overshadows or makes other crises invisible -recalls the Red Cross directive-. The grain blockage in the Black Sea seems to have been resolved, although its balsamic consequences will take time to be noticed. While this is happening, a score of African countries maintain the same clamor. Even when?