Chad: We need a long-term vision, says regional humanitarian chief

1 Jul 2014

June 2012, Chad: 2.6 million people are food insecure in Chad, up from 2.1 million in 2013. In Chad's Sahel belt, food insecurity rates are between 30 and 61 per cent. Credit: OCHA/Pierre Peron
In Chad and across the Sahel, the UN and partners are combining immediate relief with a long-term approach to tackle chronic hunger and build livelihoods.

"Chad exemplifies many of the common problems of the whole Sahel zone," said Robert Piper, Regional Humanitarian Coordinator for the Sahel, during a recent visit to the country. "We need a long term vision to tackle chronic issues and increase the resilience of families."

The Sahel – a region that stretches across the southern fringe of the Sahara desert– is home to some of the world’s poorest and most vulnerable people. Its eastern edge extends through central Chad.

Like other Sahel countries, the major humanitarian concerns in Chad's Sahel zone are malnutrition and food insecurity. Currently, 2.6 million people are food insecure in Chad, up from 2.1 million in 2013. Four of the five administrative regions in the Sahel report levels of food insecurity between 30 and 37 percent. In the fifth region, Wadi Fira on the border with Sudan, a staggering 61 per cent of people are food insecure.

63,000 malnourished children

Food insecurity is closely linked to childhood malnutrition. Malnutrition rates in the five regions of Chad's Sahel belt range from 9 to 12 per cent – at or above the emergency threshold of 10 per cent. In the first two months of this year, the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF) registered 63,000 malnourished children in Chad, the majority of them in the Sahel belt.

Two-year-old Ibrahim is one of these children. He peeks sceptically from the safety of his mother’s lap at a malnutrition treatment centre run by the NGO Action Contre la Faim with support from UNICEF, the World Health Organization and a few other humanitarian groups.

Ibrahim and his mum come from Mao in the Kanem region. His bald head seems disproportionately large compared to his tiny arms and body. Every blood vessel is visible under the thin skin of his head. Alongside Ibrahim and his mother sits Zezar, 20, with her 8-month-old daughter Medina. A tube runs into Medina’s nose because she is too weak to eat. Both children suffer from Global Acute Malnutrition (GAM), the result of severe nutrient deprivation over a short period of time.

Financing for a year does not cut it

Over half of children younger than five in Kanem suffer from chronic malnutrition. For many, the consequences will be felt for a long time. "This long-term form of malnutrition is associated with child mortality, child morbidity, and growth failure and development shortcomings," explains Doctor Raoul, the Ministry of Health's head doctor in Kanem.

The solution, say aid workers, is to take a longer-term view. While life-saving assistance like the treatment of malnutrition remains a critical element in reducing harm today, the humanitarian community needs to address chronic food insecurity - one of the main underlying causes of malnutrition – to bring about long-term change.

However, humanitarian organizations traditionally plan and finance their work on an annual basis. This approach makes it difficult to plan long-term interventions. Short-term interventions – the mass deployment of emergency staff and equipment – help stabilize critical situations, but do little to address underlying causes.

In the Sahel, where nearly every lean season is accompanied by humanitarian needs, such a cycle of aid can also create dependencies amongst vulnerable communities. And humanitarian donors are reluctant to fund repeated and costly interventions every few months.

Humanitarian aid and development should go hand in hand

At the beginning of the year, the humanitarian community announced a new plan to tackle food insecurity in the Sahel. The Sahel Humanitarian Response Plan aligns the humanitarian plans for nine countries: Burkina Faso, Cameroon, Chad, Gambia, Mali, Mauritania, Niger, Nigeria and Senegal.

Instead of planning for only one year, this Sahel Humanitarian Response Plan covers three years. This allows for longer project cycles that can target the underlying causes of the chronic crisis in the region.

For Chad, the UN and its partners have appealed for US$527 million for the first year of operations. Strong emphasis is being placed on projects that will build the resilience of vulnerable communities. Such communities often live in remote areas without access to social services. They rely on low-yield agricultural techniques that make them extremely susceptible to the disastrous effects of the droughts, failed rains and bird and locust invasions that occur regularly in the Sahel.

Projects range from the distribution of food vouchers during the lean season, to the building of communal gardens that help to diversify village diets and make people less dependent on staple harvests. Other projects include the planting of trees to protect soil from being washed away by rare heavy rains: an important disaster risk reduction measure.

"We need to help communities build coping strategies that allow them to recover quickly from shocks to their livelihoods," explains Robert Piper.