Displaced women and children in northern Mali Displaced women and children in northern Mali Photo credit: EC/ECHO/Cyprien Fabre
Addressing the critical humanitarian situation in northern Mali
by Jean-Nicolas Marti, ICRC October 2012

Poor harvests in 2011, and then armed conflict and violence: people in northern Mali have been hit doubly hard. They are no longer able to meet their basic food needs. The majority of rural households owe their livelihood to farming and livestock activities. They have not had time to recover from the effects of drought, which has reduced their food security in recent years, and they are now suffering from the negative effects of conflict as well. Food is scarce and expensive and people have no income to buy what they need. Their resilience capacity has been severely depleted by repeated humanitarian crises. They need urgent aid.

With the rainy season starting in May, farmers also need seed to plant their fields, in the hope of a good harvest next year, while herders need to preserve their livestock as far as possible, or sell animals in order to buy essential supplies. Access to health care is another major difficulty for the population of this vast, semi-desert area.

Conflict, displacement and food security In January 2012, the MNLA (in French, the Mouvement national pour la liberation de l’Azawad) launched an armed separatist campaign in northern Mali. The MNLA took control of the three main towns of ‘Azawad’ (Kidal, Gao and Timbuktu) in the first days of April. Meanwhile, other armed groups made their way into the same urban centres. The central government is very unstable following a coup in March, and has lost control of the north.

The conflict has uprooted more than 300,000 people. The majority have sought safety in neighbouring countries (Niger, Burkina Faso, Mauritania and Algeria), and tens of thousands are displaced inside Mali, either in the north or in Mopti and other regions south of Gao and Timbuktu. This massive displacement is occurring just as Mali and the entire Sahel region are coping with a desperate food situation. Fighting in June in Gao between the MNLA and another armed group, the MUJAO (in French, the Mouvement pour l’unicité et le jihad en Afrique Occidentale), has led to fresh population movements.

The combination of the food crisis and armed conflict is having alarming consequences for tens of thousands of people. Food security is critical again in 2012, and perhaps even worse than it was in the region two years ago. In order to cope, many families are eating less, and less nutritious, food. Meanwhile, the looting that followed the fighting at the beginning of April affected harvest stocks intended for consumption, sale and the creation of seed stocks. The price of basic foodstuffs is rising exponentially. In urban areas, banks are no longer operating and workers are no longer receiving their pay. People’s purchasing power is declining inexorably.

The crisis situation is further weakening small farmers at the start of the 2012–2013 crop year, while for stockbreeders the feed balance, which is in deficit, is seriously disrupting the movement of livestock to markets and rangelands.

Because the security situation is preventing buyers from coming forward, breeders are unable to sell their livestock in Mali or in other countries in the region. As the ability of animals to move about and search for pasture and water diminishes further owing to the lack of feed, herdsmen have no choice but to practically give away their beasts to the few buyers still operating in local markets.

Another threat has also arisen with the arrival of swarms of locusts, coinciding with planting and the emergence of this year’s summer rain-fed crops in agricultural zones. There is an immediate and severe threat to crops in Mali, as well as in Niger and Chad. Insecurity and limited access inside northern Mali is hindering efforts to control the threat, increasing the risk posed to crops as the locusts move south towards agro-pastoral areas.

Food assistance

In mid-July, the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) launched a large-scale food distribution to assist people worst-affected by the combined effects of violence and the food crisis in northern Mali. In the first phase of the operation, more than 160,000 people will receive rice, semolina, beans, oil and salt, while rice and sorghum seed will be distributed to some 42,000 farmers as the new farming cycle begins. The ICRC will also buy around 10,000 goats, sheep and cows at a generous price from some 5,000 herding families. With this income, the herders will then be able to buy grain and other essential supplies. The livestock will be slaughtered while they are still in a fair condition, and the meat distributed to those most in need. Animal feed will also be distributed to herders to help them preserve their livestock. The distributions and other operations are being carried out in cooperation with the Mali Red Cross.

Due to insecurity, humanitarian organisations are scarce in this region. The ICRC is one of the few able to operate, maintaining teams in Gao, Kidal and Timbuktu, although these teams are smaller than usual. An office has been opened in Mopti, and the ICRC is still operating in Bamako, the Malian capital. More humanitarian organisations are present in the neighbouring countries that are hosting Malian refugees. More than 60,000 refugees are now estimated to be in the north of Burkina Faso. The influx has only worsened the already difficult conditions in the country’s Sahel, especially as the refugees arrived with their livestock (their main source of income). Available pastureland does not provide enough food for the approximately 150,000 head of livestock. In south-eastern Mauritania, a dry, hard-to-reach area, tens of thousands of refugees lack household essentials and milk. They also have their livestock with them – often in frail health. Thousands of people have fled to Niger’s Tillabéry region, one of the areas hardest-hit by the Sahel drought and food crisis. The ICRC is closely monitoring the overall refugee situation, in coordination with other humanitarian organisations. This includes Algeria, where the national Red Crescent Society is responding to the needs of refugees who have crossed the northern-most Malian border.

Health care and public services

Access to health care is another major challenge for people in northern Mali. The health sector has been disrupted by the conflict. Most community healthcare centres outside cities are no longer functioning, either because they were looted or because they were abandoned by their staff. Those centres that are still running are unable to obtain medicines because the Gao regional pharmaceutical warehouse is no longer operating.

Before the conflict, there were five hospitals and 65 community health centres. Today just one regional hospital and some referral centres are functioning. Only the regional hospital (which was looted in April) and community health centres in Gao are providing preventive and curative health care. People who cannot reach these facilities have no access to vaccination against diseases such as polio, tuberculosis, meningitis and measles. Due to the lack of a cold supply chain, national vaccination programmes have been suspended everywhere in northern Mali except in Gao. Maternal death rates have increased due to the lack of prenatal medical consultations. Another concern is the situation of injured people, particularly those with bullet wounds. Street protests and fighting between armed groups on 26 and 27 June in Gao resulted in over 40 wounded people being treated at the hospital. Access to proper health care is a major issue for Malian refugees as well, notably in south-eastern Mauritania.

The ICRC is providing the Gao hospital with medicines and surgical and other medical supplies, making sure that the hospital has electricity and clean drinking water, paying the wages of the 124 healthcare staff and making available some of its own staff. The ICRC is also providing aid to the referral centre in Assongo, and at the time of writing the ICRC is also preparing to resume its support for nine primary healthcare centres in northern Mali, having suspended its programmes in April due to insecurity. The ICRC has also supported a cholera treatment centre set up by the local health authorities in response to an outbreak of the disease in a village near Gao at the beginning of July, in which two children died.

The conflict has disrupted public services in northern Mali, with a lack of electricity and water supplies in the main towns and the closure of most schools. Temporarily stepping in, the ICRC supplied power plants in Gao, Timbuktu and Kidal with fuel, so that clean drinking water could flow again. The generators run the pumps in water wells and treatment plants.

Constraints on humanitarian action

The main constraint on humanitarian action in Mali remains secure access for all humanitarian actors to the three northern regions. The ICRC is currently trying to ensure that all parties on the ground understand and accept the need for neutral, independent and humanitarian activity. It will only be possible to fully meet the huge needs in this region if those involved on the ground accept this role for the ICRC, the Mali Red Cross and other humanitarian organisations, and give solid security guarantees.

To monitor the conditions in which they are being held and the treatment they receive, the ICRC has been visiting detainees in Bamako, in connection with the conflict in the north and the political situation in the capital. It has also visited Malian army personnel held by the MNLA. Detainees were given the opportunity to write letters to their families. In its capacity as a neutral intermediary, the ICRC also facilitated the transfer of four released military personnel and placed them in the care of the Malian authorities. It also arranged for the return home of eight people from the north of the country who were released in Bamako, where they had been detained in connection with the crisis. After transiting through Niamey, they were reunited with their families in Gao on 25 May.

It is very difficult to predict how the political and military situation in Mali will evolve, and what the humanitarian consequences will be. Whatever happens, the ICRC would like to remind all those involved in armed violence of the need to respect the civilian population and all those protected by humanitarian rules, including the wounded and detainees.

In our view, the critical humanitarian situation in northern Mali must be addressed with the same urgency as political and security issues. Once the urgent humanitarian needs are tackled and the situation stabilises, it will be time to help the people of the region rebuild their resilience capacities, notably by establishing early warning and response mechanisms. But for now, the priority is clearly to respond to the current, very concrete and multi-faceted humanitarian emergency.

Jean-Nicolas Marti is Head of the ICRC delegation for Mali and Niger.