Last Updated: Friday, 25 July 2014, 12:52 GMT

Mali: Aid gets into gear, but must navigate no-go zones

Publisher Integrated Regional Information Networks (IRIN)
Publication Date 15 February 2012
Cite as Integrated Regional Information Networks (IRIN), Mali: Aid gets into gear, but must navigate no-go zones, 15 February 2012, available at: http://www.refworld.org/docid/4f3e4be52.html [accessed 26 July 2014]
DisclaimerThis is not a UNHCR publication. UNHCR is not responsible for, nor does it necessarily endorse, its content. Any views expressed are solely those of the author or publisher and do not necessarily reflect those of UNHCR, the United Nations or its Member States.

Aid workers are facing a trio of challenges in northern Mali: extensive drought-induced food insecurity and pasture shortages; conflict between Tuaregs and the Malian army; and the resulting displacement of thousands more Tuaregs, say aid agencies on the ground.

The country has some three million people who are predicted to be vulnerable to severe food insecurity, and is one of eight Sahelian states facing food insecurity this year due to a mixture of poor 2011 rains, region-wide high food prices, chronic vulnerability and poverty.

"All expectations are that the current security crisis will make food insecurity worse," said Mali country director for Catholic Relief Services, Timothy Bishop.

In its latest February Sahel strategy, the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) in West Africa estimates over 10 million people will be food insecure this year, unless they receive help soon.

Among the seven affected areas - Kayes, Kouklikoro, Ségou, Mopti, Sikasso, Timbuktu and Gao - the latter two have seen fighting between Tuareg group Movement National pour la Liberation de l'Azawad (MNLA) and the Malian army.

Fighting in and around Ménaka in Gao Region has led to 26,000 internally displaced persons (IDPs); while 4,000 are displaced in villages around Augelhoc, 150km northeast of Kidal; and thousands more are expected to be displaced in Kidal's Tessalit area, as well as Léré and Niafunké in Timbuktu, according to the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR).

Meanwhile, a yet-to-be-confirmed figure of 15,000 Malians have fled across the border to Niger; some 13,000 to Mauritania, and 8,000 to Burkina Faso, according to UNHCR.

Most of those who have fled are in very bad shape, and were already suffering from food insecurity, say aid agencies.

Scale-up "complicated"

In northern Mali, while most aid agencies are continuing to work, "it is hard to scale up if there is a war situation going on," said Walters, while Germain Mwehu, a spokesperson with the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) in Niamey, told IRIN: "The situation is very complicated".

NGO Médecins du Mondes pulled out of its Kidal office recently due to insecurity.

ICRC is one of the few agencies to operate in northern Mali, with sub-offices in Timbuktu, Kidal and Gao. "We already have programmes for the food crisis; now we also have displacements because of the conflict, as well as displacement of people who were drought victims," said Mwehu, adding that the organization is negotiating with all parties to the conflict to try to maintain humanitarian access.

The Malian Red Cross has been distributing basics to some displaced households.

Given there are still many "no-go" areas in the north, agencies have been discussing the possibility of humanitarian corridors there, said Walters, though nothing has yet been identified.

For several years insecurity has driven WFP to work only through partners in the north - in this case ICRC and NGO Trans-Sahara.

The previous Tuareg rebellion ended in 2008. The north is also known for its extensive organized crime networks, which traffic drugs, arms and other contraband; and has also become a hub for Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM).

Joint Mali-Mauritania military operations against AQIM in August 2011 increased the risk of conflict and retaliation in northern Mali, say security specialists.

Adding to the difficulties in scaling up in the north are "enormous" logistical constraints, including huge distances to cover, low population density, and unpredictable population movements, says Mwehu.

"What is needed is an air service connecting Mopti, Kidal and Gao," Walters told IRIN.

Cereal stock shortages

Despite the myriad challenges, some agencies are starting to scale up their humanitarian response. WFP is starting some distributions through its wider nutrition programme this week, and has medium-term plans to triple caseloads in some areas.

Other agencies are coming in: The French branch of Médecins Sans Frontières, which has in the past held back from launching health and nutrition responses in the north, is now evaluating needs in Timbuktu and Gao said its Niger and Mali head Michel-Olivier Lacharité.

CRS is scaling up to distribute food to 125,000 in the Mopti region but this will cover just a small part of Mopti's overall needs, said Bishop. "There is no doubt that all aid agency interventions are going to be insufficient and the government of Mali will need to step up its reaction," he said.

The government, which is generally proactive in food security early warning and response, distributed 4,710 tons around the country in December, and set aside additional amounts to respond to food needs in the north. However, the Food Security Commission says it has just under 10,000 tons of food available, while 40,000 tons is needed.

The fear is that without imminent response, already high acute malnutrition rates could rise further, say aid agency staff. Many households have just one or two weeks of cereal stocks remaining, according to a WFP December 2011 assessment.

Danger of mixed messages

Thus far a few donors have come forward, but there is not enough to mobilize large-scale responses yet, say aid agency staff.

One of the reasons donors have been slower to mobilize on Mali is because of mixed early warning messages, said Bishop. While some agencies rang the alert in December 2011, others said the harvest would be adequate to cover food insecure regions. Only in mid-January did coherent messaging as to the extent of the crisis come out.

It is only with the mounting security and displacement crisis that people have begun to realize Mali is now at equal risk as Niger or Mauritania, said Bishop.

ECHO (the EU humanitarian aid body) has made $7.6 million available, with more projected once it is clearer about which amounts to direct to various Sahelian countries over the coming weeks. WFP confirms it has US$3.5 million to spend on immediate humanitarian needs and it expects a further $5 million in the coming days - against projected needs of $48 million, according to Walters. "This funding is enabling us to go ahead in some small way," she told IRIN.

The Swedish government has allocated $328,000 to humanitarian needs, and the ICRC and UN agencies are likely to issue appeals soon.

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