Action against hunger with milk and millet in Mali

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"What about the rain?"

After questions on family and the herd, this is the most typical query during any Tamashek greeting in northern Mali.

A nomadic people living throughout West Africa's Sahel region, the Tamashek - like most Malians - rely on livestock farming for their livelihoods.

"Without rain, there is no pasture for our herds to graze on and our animals die," Arahmat explains.

"The sun has got closer to our heads: it is getting hotter and we are losing a lot of animals. By the time the rains arrive, the cattle are so weak that they fall ill and die.

"We are exhausted from moving in search of green pasture and water. We are running out of food."

Farmers, who have adapted to changes in the environment and climate for thousands of years, are facing another major challenge.

Erratic weather patterns and drought have made their livelihoods far more vulnerable.

Late rains have put thousands of families at risk of hunger.

"Over the last five years, the rains have become more unpredictable and every year they arrive later" says Arahmat.

Her seven-month-old daughter, Alhousna, has severe malnutrition and is being treated at one of the DFID-supported public health centres in Gao, run by aid agency Action Against Hunger.

Most people in the region have lost at least half of their livestock. A shortage of pasture means farmers are forced to buy food to keep their animals alive.

But food prices have quadrupled, plunging them deeper into poverty.

"In the past, we relied on selling out animals to buy sorghum and millet to eat when things got bad," Arahmat says. "But this year the price of animals has hit rock bottom.

"We can no longer sell our animals, or we sell them for next to nothing.

"Now, we sell five goats for a sack of millet, when it would normally cost one."

Farmers have been left in a precarious situation and hunger is spreading.

Families can no longer rely on nutritious animal milk to feed their children, and it is the young who are the first to suffer.

As part of DFID's emergency response to the crisis in Gao, malnourished children like Alhousna are receiving highly nutritious therapeutic food to restore their health.

Many families are also receiving millet and oil to slow the spread of malnutrition.

Key facts and stats:

* DFID is providing £365,000 to Action Against Hunger's emergency intervention in Gao in eastern Mali. The project is financed by DFID's West Africa Humanitarian Response Fund, which funds disaster responses to rapid onset emergencies and acute chronic crises across the West Africa region.

* The programme is helping 16,500 people in the region through the treatment of acutely malnourished children, nutritional support for at-risk children and the distribution of food rations to the most vulnerable families.

* A recent survey carried out by Action Against Hunger in Gao found that 15.9% of children under five have moderate or severe acute malnutrition, a proportion that exceeds the World Health Organisation's emergency threshold of 15%.