By Nick Tattersall
BAMAKO, June 16 (Reuters) - Clashes between ethnic groups over scarce grazing land are exacerbating a food crisis in the arid savannah of northern Mali, where 5,000 children are suffering from severe malnutrition, aid workers say.
Nearly a million people, most of them subsistence farmers, are facing drought in the West African country and thousands of cattle herders have fled their parched traditional pastures in search of water, according to aid group Action contre la Faim (Action Against Hunger).
The lack of fertile land has heightened tensions between nomadic herders and sedentary farmers on the edge of the Sahara, an area infamous for banditry and smuggling largely beyond the control of the government 1,000 km (620 miles) away in Bamako.
"The drought is making the problems between herders and pastoralists much worse. Pastoralists are trying to push out the nomadic herders," said Pablo Recalde, head of the United Nations World Food Programme (WFP) in Mali.
"Violence springs up very easily. There has been a lot of armed banditry in northern Mali and blockades with heavy weaponry. There have been some pretty serious attacks," he told Reuters in an interview this week.
The clashes had made it more difficult for nomads such as the fair-skinned Tuaregs, who staged a revolt in the 1990s saying they were persecuted by a black elite, to make their normal seasonal migration further south, Recalde said.
That meant families were trying to survive around watering holes in the region around the sandswept towns of Timbuktu, Kidal and Gao in temperatures that regularly climb well above 100 degrees Fahrenheit (37.8C), causing high levels of malnutrition.
ONE CHILD IN THREE MALNOURISHED
The region around Gao was the scene of frequent clashes between members of the pro-government Kounta and pro-opposition Arab militants in the late 1990s as they fought for control of desert trading routes. Ethnic rivalry has simmered ever since.
Action Against Hunger said satellite images showed that in some areas less than half the normal pastures remained due to the drought, which was compounded by a devastating locust plague late last year.
In the region around Kidal more than one in three children below the age of 5 were suffering from acute malnutrition after the worst winter agricultural production since 1999, it said.
Aid workers say the situation is not yet as bad as in neighbouring Niger, where 3.6 million people are in desperate need of aid, partly because the Malian government had successfully released its emergency food stocks.
But they warned that the country had no emergency supplies left, crop production would take years to recover and donor pockets were empty after supporting the fight against locusts.
As rich nations prepare to discuss reducing global poverty at a Group of Eight meeting next month in Scotland, aid workers say the situation in Mali and Niger is typical of the sort of daily struggle to survive that donors often overlook.
"The Sahel (region south of the Sahara) is a prime example of where silent crises are going on on a daily basis, where people are actually becoming poorer and poorer," Recalde said.
"We shouldn't wait until we have a very high level of generalised malnutrition before providing assistance," he said.
- Reuters - Thomson Reuters Foundation
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