Children and animals draw water from wells.
Many children have left school due to the lack of food and water

Water scarcity causing food insecurity in Mali

“If nothing happens in the coming four weeks, our cattle will be starving to death”
Mohamed, one of the chiefs at Djibok

Scarcity of water is making it almost impossible to grow food in Gao, Mali. Charles Bambara, Oxfam's West Africa Media Coordinator, stresses the urgency of acting now to solve the West Africa food crisis.

The city of Gao, lying along the Niger river, is attracting more and more herders and pastoralists coming from as far as the Kidal region further north, or from neighboring countries like Niger.

Only 25 miles outside Gao, in Echag, a camping village, the land is dry – too dry to sustain any trees. Only horn trees remain, a few last leaves fought over by hungry goats and camels. The desolation is visible. Many families have abandoned hope of remaining in this, their ancestral land. Yet still some nomadic families in this area are struggling beyond odds to continue life here.

Gao market

Gao animal market, very thin sheep for sale.. Credit: Charles Mambara/Oxfam

Water is scarce. “If nothing happens in the coming four weeks, our cattle will be starving to death. We are already struggling to guarantee food for our children and women,” said Mohamed, one of the chiefs at Djibok, a large camping station with many wells. The wells are attracting thousands of people with camels, sheep, goats and donkeys seeking water.

Cattle here are desperate for pastures and for water, and they’re coming from all over the region, sometimes from more than 125 miles away. We were surprised to see some young boys digging new wells, as they are at risk of drying up in a few weeks, and many herders don’t expect the place to sustain life beyond the end of April. Their plan is to look lower down for green pastures – which are themselves becoming rare because of the concentration of cattle.

Time is running out

“This is the third consecutive year with insufficient rains,” said Wanalher Ag Alwaly, food security expert from Tassaght, a local partner of Oxfam. “The severity and this current alarming situation are mainly due to past climate stress which is culminating this year.”

“Transhumance [moving to higher pastures in summer and to lower valleys in winter] began in January, six months earlier than usual,” stressed Suleiman a Tuaregm, a member of another local NGO in Gao. “The rush with cattle is increasing and we are expecting more trouble [with the arrival of new] herders and pastoralists.”

Crop prices are steadily increasing. In the past, selling a goat would raise enough money for a 110-pound bag of millet. Now, two goats are needed. But some goats are so skinny, nobody wants to buy them. And Gao is still in the early stages of this crisis. “If nothing is done in the coming weeks it will be too late,” according to Tassaght specialists.

It is the Easter holidays for school children. More children are dropping out of school. “Empty stomachs cannot learn and be taught,” said a school parent emerging from one tent.

Local authorities are no longer hiding the issue of food insecurity in Northern Mali. 7,000 tons of food will be made available to the most affected areas in the country, according to the government. But so far nothing has arrived. Many meetings have been organized with local NGOs, international NGOs and the UN to stress the need to act quickly.

The race against time is being lost, and nothing is emerging strongly from the ground to meet people’s need.

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West Africa Food Crisis