Families face triple threat of climate, conflict and coronavirus in Mali

WFP provides support to most vulnerable as 5 million affected by food insecurity

By Djaounsede Madjiangar

On a Thursday morning in June, men, women and children from Kandia village took to Lake Magui, a freshwater reservoir in the middle of the desert, about 60 km north of Kayes in western Mali. Spanning a length of 78 km, in 2016 the lake was identified by the Government of Mali to be included on UNESCO’s World Heritage list for its rich biodiversity.

“Every year in June, we organize a community fishing day in this lake,” said Fousseini Kane, a fisherman, as families armed with nets, spears and baskets took to the lake.

According to Fousseini, the community fishing day used to be a holiday in the villages bordering the lake. People would catch large amounts of fish of all sizes and species. Then they would share them with the most vulnerable groups, including elderly, sick and widowed people. “It is our tradition to share community resources with everyone in the village,” Fousseini explained.

This year, despite his hard work, experience and technical know-how, Fousseini has only managed to catch a handful of small fish.

Due to erratic rainfall, recurrent droughts and excessive fishing, grazing and farming, the lake surface has shrunk, and the level of water has significantly decreased along with the number, size and variety of fish species.

“Fishing is my favourite activity,” said Fousseini who, like many villagers here, is also a herder. “But I have to stop it now. There is nothing much to expect from it these days.”

While a few years ago he could easily save XOF 50,000 (about US$100) a week from fishing, now he can hardly gain XOF 5,000 (US$10) a week.

Villagers like Fousseini would use the extra income to buy animal feeds or increase food reserves for the lean season (June to September), when most families struggle to find food.

COVID-19 poses further challenges

In the semi-arid regions of Mali, where grazing areas are a luxury, pastoralists like Fousseini rely on imported animal feeds to support their livestock during the dry season. The COVID-19 outbreak, with border closures and restrictions on the movement of people, goods and services, has caused market prices for imported items to sharply soar, leaving herders with no option but to sell off their cattle at low cost to meet their families’ increasing needs and protect the remaining herd.

“I have recently sold one of my bulls to buy cattle feed,” Housseini said. “If I had not done that, I would have lost the rest of my cattle.”

Overlapping crises, increasing needs

As a result of the cumulative effects of climate change, armed conflict and widespread insecurity — which affect northern and central regions, and have caused the displacement of 266,000 people so far — and the ongoing COVID-19 health crisis, an estimated 5 million people in Mali are currently food insecure. This includes 2.4 million men, women and children who are unable to meet their basic food and nutrition needs and require emergency food assistance.

In response to these increasing needs, the World Food Programme (WFP) is providing food and nutrition assistance to 1 million food-insecure families in northern and central regions. WFP also supports 142,000 people in the rehabilitation of land, the creation of community assets including feeder roads, water ponds, boreholes, agricultural infrastructure, irrigation schemes and erosion-control systems, and activities such as tree-planting.

To prevent the spread of COVID-19 during these activities, WFP and its partners have provided participants with face masks and hand-washing kits, while ensuring physical distancing and body temperature checks on project sites.

Investing in the future

As they attended a WFP voucher distribution in Kandia, Fousseini and other villagers expressed gratitude for the support they received from WFP and its partners. However, they insisted on the urgent need to restore and revitalize Lake Magui, as it offers a permanent source of water that supports fishing, farming and grazing.

Learn more about WFP’s work in Mali