More than 15 million people are affected by a devastating drought sweeping through the Sahel region of West Africa. Under severe weather conditions, low levels of development and political instability, hundreds of thousands are cut off from the necessary aid needed to alleviate rural communities affected by low harvests and food shortages.
The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) launched an urgent appeal in early 2012 for additional aid as it became clear that civilians would be under immense strain as the combination of war and the onset of food shortages between the months of June-September might just be too much of a burden to bear.
Al Jazeera's Azad Essa caught up with Steven Anderson, the ICRC’s West African spokesperson, about the group’s activities, the difficulties of delivering aid and reaching those communities who are in most need - as the impact of the drought deepens across the region.
Azad Essa: Please provide us with a sense of the crisis and the scale of ICRC’s activities in the region
Steven Anderson: In the Sahel, the ICRC is present and active above all in the areas where there is a combination of needs related to the food crisis and to situations of insecurity. The priority since January is clearly set on northern Mali, where an armed conflict has broken out and tens of thousands of people have been forced to flee, inside the country or seeking refuge in neighbouring countries. Recent evaluations in northern Mali, which we carried out jointly with the Malian Red Cross, indicate that the situation continues to deteriorate, affecting the population as a whole.
The ICRC has also provided essential household items to 18,000 Malian refugees in northern Burkina Faso (Oudalan province), in a joint distribution with the Burkina Faso Red Cross, and aims at doing a similar distribution to refugees in southeastern Mauritania. In Casamance, southern Senegal, a region also affected by an armed conflict, food distribution for 34,000 people is ongoing.
Beyond distributions of urgently needed items, the ICRC has also looked at the Malian refugees' needs in terms of health and water, as well as the needs related to the numerous animals they have taken with them.
AE: The crisis is spread across eight countries in West Africa - each with very different political, security and infrastructural contexts - what are some of the difficulties aid agencies are facing in delivering aid?
SA: We face a number of difficulties (security, logistics, climate), but the greatest challenge is perhaps to ensure safe access into northern Mali. Many armed actors who do not know the ICRC - or the Malian Red Cross - are present there. In order to be able to proceed with our work for the victims, it is necessary to explain and convince them about the strictly humanitarian nature of our presence. This requires a lot of caution, but, above all, a lot of dialogue with all these groups. We have been able to carry out recent evaluations and hope to proceed with distributions to those most in need in coming weeks.
AE: How have the affected countries fared in their response to the crisis?
SA: In Mali, the conflict has made it very difficult for the country's authorities to respond to the needs of people in the north.
In Niger's Tillabery region, one of the hardest hit by the food crisis and where many Malians and Nigerians fleeing the conflict sought refuge, the authorities facilitated the humanitarian response from the outset. The ICRC could distribute large amounts of food and seeds there, as well as household items. All facilities were given for us to provide cereals for herders in need in the Agadez region as well.
In both countries, the ICRC has supported the authorities in vaccinating and treating against parasites in some 4.3 million animals. Food has been provided for the animals too. In coordination with the authorities, the weakest animals are bought at an advantageous price and then slaughtered, in order to distribute the meat to the most vulnerable people, and to enable herders to buy cereals with the money they obtained.
AE: In 2011, the world looked in horror at the famine in the Horn of Africa. But with another food crisis on our hands - are agencies concerned at the potential for 'donor fatigue'?
SA: Again, I cannot answer for other organisations, [but] the ICRC's appeal for Mali and Niger has been rather well received so far, but needs remain great - and donors' continued generosity in this context is more than welcome.
Follow Azad Essa on Twitter: @AzadEssa