ICRC helps communities in north beset by violence

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The ICRC works in the regions of Gao, Kidal and Timbuktu in northern Mali, where 1.3 million people are affected by food shortages and violence. In 2010 and 2011, the ICRC provided aid to almost 40% of that population. Dirieh Abdi Mohamed, outgoing head of the ICRC sub-delegation in Gao, explains.

What are the most pressing humanitarian needs in northern Mali?

The biggest problems faced by the inhabitants are due to the lack of access to safe drinking water, food and health care. These chronic difficulties are exacerbated by the recent deterioration of the security situation. Many humanitarian organizations have pulled out of northern Mali because of the violence, and the authorities are struggling to cope with events. The needs are therefore enormous, while the scope for humanitarian action is limited. The huge distances involved and the arid climate make it even harder to bring relief.

In some areas, intercommunal violence has claimed victims and forced people from their homes, sometimes without warning. Displaced families are therefore completely destitute.

In addition, many migrants pass through this region. The number of Malians returning home has also risen since the crisis in Libya. These individuals have often lost touch with their families and have no means of survival.

The Sahel is facing a potential food crisis in 2012. To what extent are people in northern Mali likely to be affected?

The situation in Mali and neighbouring Sahelian countries will be difficult this year, for both farming and herding communities.

Farmers in northern Mali are suffering the consequences of the poor harvest. There is less produce in the markets and the price of millet and rice is already rising. The rains were patchy and ended too soon in 2011, meaning that the inhabitants do not have enough supplies to survive until the next rainy season. The "lean season" (the period between harvests during which people have to live off their reserves) began in December 2011, whereas it should not have started until April 2012. The national authorities are predicting that 2012 will be a "lean year".

For the herders in these regions, the grazing areas and migratory paths have shrunk because of the lack of rain. In Gossi, for example, in the Timbuktu region, near the border with Burkina Faso, the floods in September 2011 were followed two months later by bush fires in the grazing lands. We came to the aid of the worst-hit families, but they are still in need of assistance. To make matters worse, the price fetched by their livestock is falling.

What are the ICRC's main activities in northern Mali?

In spite of the violence and logistical difficulties, the ICRC has developed various initiatives to respond to the diverse needs of the population. Almost half a million people in rural areas of Gao, Timbuktu and Kidal benefited from these initiatives in 2010 and 2011.

As part of providing access to water, in 2011 we restored dozens of wells and reservoirs, built water-supply points and installed hand pumps. We also built hydraulic structures, such as three small dams to hold back water and facilitate its infiltration in the Kidal region. In order to improve access to health care, the ICRC renovated five community health-care centres, serving some 20,000 people, and trained almost 200 health workers.

To improve economic security, we distributed food supplies to more than 70,000 displaced people in the Timbuktu region, helped vaccinate over one million heads of livestock, distributed 500 tonnes of fodder to herders, and deepened three watering holes in the Kidal region to benefit the population and livestock. We also ran several other projects to boost herders' livelihoods.

Many activities were successfully carried out jointly with the Mali Red Cross, in particular involving distributing aid and re-establishing a market garden in Gao.

In Tinzawaten, on the border with Algeria, we are also cooperating with the Mali Red Cross to help migrants arriving in the town, often in great distress. In 2011, 6,000 migrants benefited from this support, of which 2,200 were taken to Gao, via Kidal. They made almost 1,200 telephone calls to their families. Some 530 Malians returning from Libya also received assistance from the Mali Red Cross as part of this project.

These activities, which will continue in 2012, are run from our office in Gao, which is under the authority of the regional delegation covering Mali and Niger, based in Niamey.

How is the ICRC able to work in this region despite the violence?

Violence is ubiquitous in northern Mali; it is an inescapable part of life. There have always been conflicts between communities over the scarce water resources and shrinking grazing lands. This is exacerbated today by the prolific trade in weapons, by the fact that the region has become a transit point for drug traffickers, and by the emergence of new armed groups that kidnap Westerners.

Given the circumstances, it is vital that the ICRC be recognized and accepted in northern Mali in order to maintain its presence and activities. This is why we pursue ongoing dialogue with the communities, the local authorities and – wherever possible – the various armed groups.

Operational partnerships are also very important for boosting this acceptance and limiting the risks of our teams being targeted, while ensuring that our activities have a positive impact. To this end, our cooperation with the Mali Red Cross is crucial. The ICRC also works with private service providers, in particular a Sahelian veterinary-consultancy firm, which was involved in the livestock-vaccination and de-stocking programmes.