By Elias Ntungwe Ngalame
[Garoua- Cameroon] Ongoing efforts against extreme food crisis and increasing child malnutrition in the north of Cameroon and other parts of the Sahel region in Africa are being weakened by the effects of climate change among others. Compounding existing food insecurity, experts say is a combination of prolonged drought, failed crops, soaring food prices, ignorance and regional instability that has left millions of people in the region hungry with the more vulnerable group, children and mothers taking the biggest hit.
“Northern Cameroon is part of the Sahel region that is prone to drought and suffering from poor food production supply of portable water. The situation is increasingly so with climate change. Rains are shorter and less frequent; pasture land is turning into desert. This is changing the way of life for the people in this region and many cannot feed themselves and their children, reason why they need support to adapt and increase their resilience," Dr NJackoi Henry former country director Heifer Project International Cameroon told Thomson Reuters in Yaounde.
In a field visit in Garoua in the North of Cameroon by the Yaounde regional office of UNICEF on July 2-5, 2013 to evaluate the situation of child malnutrition in the region, women and health officials in Lamudam health unit, one of the visited village centres in the community, acknowledged the population is far from recovering from food insecurity in spite the multiple efforts by government and some international organizations to abate the situation. Child malnutrition in the region is consequently increasing.
Ignorance, porverty and food scarcity especially during prolonged dry period of the year she says were identified as the principal causes of child malnutrition in the region.
Marianna Abdoul 46 and a mother of five who visits the Lamudam health unit for medical attention to her two children suffering from acute malnutrition, says poor Farm yields and poverty makes it difficult for her and her husband to feed their children well.
“Our farm yields are insufficient making it difficult to feed through out the year. The food support we get from the health centre is not enough either, “Mariana Abdoul told Thomson Reuters.
Like Mariana’s children, many others in the region below the ages of five according the chief of the Lamudam health centre,suffer from acute child malnutrition and the situation she says is alarming, necessitating rapid intervention from the government and partner organisations.
Environment experts say the situation is extremely dire for children in many parts of the Sahel region of West and Central Africa including the Northern regions of Cameroon where advancing desert and erratic rains leading to floods are having a toll on food production. Consequently the people in this region are experiencing more frequent bouts of food insecurity and malnutrition.
“The situation in North of Cameroon is just a reflection of the picture in the Sahel region, especially countries in the West and Central Africa suffering from the effects of climate change such as restricted harvests, making the entire populations increasingly vulnerable,” Dr. Njakoi Henry who led a series of water provision development projects by Hiefer International in 2011- 2012 in the Northern region of Cameroon, pointed out.
Statistics from the United Nations Environmental Programme, UNEP says over 1.5 million children in the Sahel region are at risk of malnutrition with about 11.6 million people vulnerable to food insecurity and malnutrition. Grain prices have equally increased by up to 70% in some regions.
The 2013 UNEP pointed out that, “Drought and high food prices in 2012 threatened the food security of over 18 million people in the Sahel Region of Africa, which includes parts of Chad, Niger, Mali, Mauritania, Burkina Faso, Senegal, Gambia, Cameroon, and northern Nigeria. The Sahel is prone to drought, and is becoming increasingly so with climate change,” the report said.
With an estimated 330,600 children under age five at risk of severe and acute malnutrition in Northern part of Cameroon, the report say, the government has issued an alert saying more than half of villages in the region are suffering from extreme food insecurity.
Other countries and regions where children are expected to require specialist treatment in clinics are northern Nigeria,, Burkina Faso, Mali and northern Senegal , the UNICEF report say.
Another statistics from the ministry of health in Cameroon says almost 40% of the population of children under five years old is at risk of vitamin A deficiency (VAD), with rates exceeding 62% in the North region.
A 2012 Counterpart International report on nutritional status in Cameroon says the three northern regions of Adamaoua, North and Far North are the most affected in food insecurity a situation that has triggered increasing rates of child malnutrition.
“Child malnutrition in the entire region has continued to increase over the years, 29% in 1998, 32%in 2004, 33% in 2011 and 46% in 2012, the Counterpart International report said.
This disturbing rising child malnutrition crisis in the Northern part of Cameroon was corroborated by UNICEF in a recent child nutrition media workshop in Garoua.
“UNICEF estimates more than a million children under the age of five will need to be treated in feeding centres for severe malnutrition in the entire Sahel region of Africa. It is a staggeringly high number and there’s little time to prepare. We need to assists these communities before the situation goes off hand,” warned Dr.
Beshir Aounen, chief of child survival and development UNICEF Cameroon.
Cameroon’s legendary former national team goal keeper Bell Joseph Antoine who accompanied UNICEF to the visit in Garoua called for concerted efforts by the different stakeholders.
“ I think intervention by international organisation and the government is good but it would produce more positive results if they all work as a team rather than in dispersed ranks,” Bell Joseph Antoine Advised.
“In the coming months, targeted supplementary feeding will be provided to treat more than 46,000 moderately acute malnourished children under 5 years and 12,000 moderately acute malnourished pregnant and nursing women in the Far North region. This is badly needed assistance as malnutrition in these regions range between levels considered to be "serious" and "critical", the minister announced.
The coordinator of the Association for the Defence of Collective Interest abbreviated in French ACDIC, a local NGO that equally supports farmer groups in the rural communities, Benard Njonga thinks the hard food supply realities staring the people of the desert prone regions on the face, cannot be solved by just cut and paste interventions.
“While families in critical conditions today need emergency assistance, we also need to find long-term solutions to help people survive in an environment that is becoming more difficult to live in because of a changing climate. We think the women farming groups in these regions could be trained on how to use drought resistant crops like cassava that can equally be transformed into flour to last throughout the year as well as sold to neighbouring countries if produced in large quantities to raise more income,” Benard Njonga suggested.
In another action, the Cameroon government through the minister of commerce have started closing down businesses found breaking price agreements on food staples after consumer groups warned that recent market price hikes was making things worse for the population in the Northern region of the country.
Average annual income per head in Cameroon stands at just over $1,200 according to U.N 2012 figures. Formal employment remains scarce and economic growth is lagging at around 4-5 % since 2010.
Consumer organisations say market prices of foodstuffs like rice, corn, sugar, and palm oil have soared up to 30 percent in recent months at a time when very low salaries of civil servants has significantly reduced the purchasing power of the population.
"We think the government should take more severe measures to clamp down on business people who hoard food to increase prices and making feeding difficult especially for the people of the North who are already suffering from desertification. They should as well increase salaries of civil servants that were cut down by over 60% in 1994 at the heart of the economic crisis," remarked Delore Magellan Kamgaing of the Cameroon Consumers' League.