BAMAKO, 26 July (IRIN) - From her office in the capital Bamako, the government's head of food security says there is no risk of famine in Mali this year. But some aid workers operating in the arid north and east of the country, disagree.
"Thank God, in Mali, we don't have a risk of famine," Food Commissioner Lansry Nana Yaya Haidara told IRIN on Tuesday.
Mary Diallo, the head of the government's Early Warning System, agreed that there was no crisis in Mali. "I am the first to become involved in everything that concerns this situation... but rest assured the facts contradict such a scenario," he said.
Both were speaking from a city in the wooded savannahs of southern Mali which enjoyed good rainfall and a reasonable harvest last year and where food prices have remained stable.
But according to the United Nations, over two million people in the semi-arid zone further north, will need food aid to get by this year following poor rainfall and an invasion of crop-eating locusts in 2004.
"Approximately 2.2 million people - 20 percent of the Malian population - are likely to suffer from food insecurity or famine if ongoing actions underway come to a stop before the end of the lean season, due to lack of support," the UN World Food Programme (WFP) said in a report on 21 July.
Despite Haidara's conviction that Mali does not face a major food crisis this year - unlike neighbouring Niger where international aid agencies are battling to save 3.6 million people from hunger - she did admit that government food stocks have run out and urgently need replenishing.
The Malian government distributed 9,146 tonnes of cereals to 83 communities in November and December and Haidara said its 5.5 billion CFA franc (US $10 billion) reserve fund to buy up to 35,000 tonnes of emergency food stocks was now exhausted.
"We have launched an appeal to the international community to send us aid to replenish this fund," she said.
Northern Mali lies in the semi-arid Sahelian belt that sweeps from Mauritania in the west to Chad in the east, which last year suffered the double plague of locusts and drought.
As a direct result, the United Nations estimates that over six million people now face food shortages throughout the region.
The crisis in Niger has so far received all the international limelight, but the British relief agency Oxfam says people are suffering in Mali too.
Helene Breton, the Regional Food Security Adviser in West Africa for Oxfam UK, said the situation in Mali was similar to that in Niger, but had simply been ignored.
"The food situation in not good - there is a lack of food security in Mali similar to that in Niger," said Breton, who had just returned from a field trip to Mali. "But the problems in Mali are in the remote northern regions, which are generally ignored," she added.
Aid workers have singled out the area north of the 14th parallel as being worst hit in Mali. This includes areas of hardship around Kayes in the west, Mopti, Timbuktu and Gao on the Niger river, and Kidal in the remote and bandit-ridden Adrar des Iforras hills of the northeast.
Neighbouring Niger has been warning of impending food shortages since November 2004, but international aid has only just begun to flow in as images of skeletal babies have made media headlines.
One aid worker told IRIN last week that the situation in Niger had turned around because, "Niger is sexy now, children are dying."
But according to Oxfam, children are dying in Mali too.
"There is a lot of malnutrition and from our enquiries - which are not scientific - child mortality appears to higher than normal," said Breton.
Angelina Le of Islamic Relief, which distributed 95 tonnes of food aid to five towns and villages in the Timbuktu area earlier this month, confirmed that the situation in Mali was serious.
"The malnutrition situation is not endemic [as it is in Niger] but it is chronic," warned Le.
Some 5,000 Malian children in the north already suffer from acute malnutrition with infant mortality reaching record levels in some northern areas, according to the United Nationss Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA).
WFP estimates that agricultural production is down 42 percent on last year and 25 percent lower than the previous five-year average.
"Mali needs free food distributions as soon as possible," said Breton. "Already by December 2004, Oxfam studies found that people had lowered their consumption levels to cope with the shortage of food."
Traditional coping mechanisms in the remote communities of northern Mali have been all but exhausted, according to WFP.
It noted that communities had begun selling breeding animals from their herds of cattle, camels, sheep and goats - so weakening their position in future years - and that nomadic herdsmen had been migrating in larger numbers over bigger than usual distances to search for food and grazing.
Indeed, tracking these nomadic groups in the vast Sahelian scrub of northern Mali is one of the major obstacles facing any aid distribution programme.
"There is everything to do in Mali, but it doesn't interest donors much as it is a difficult place to operate," said Oxfam's Breton. "It's so big and the area so vast. At the same time, population levels are low," she added
The food shortages in Mali, as in Niger, are reflected in soaring food prices in the worst hit regions.
Residents in Gao, 1,200 km northeast of Bamako, said a 100 kg sack of millet, enough to feed an average family for 20 days, now sells at 22,500 CFA (US $41) 50 percent more than at this time last year.
Rice in Gao, is almost double last year's retail price, they added.
However, Michel Laguesse, WFP's assistant country director in Mali, played down suggestions that the country faced a major food crisis.
"The donor community, technical personnel, humanitarian workers and the government have all been working well here in Mali to prevent the situation escalating," he told IRIN.
Over the past month, the government has waived value added tax on sales of 100,000 tonnes of maize and 50,000 tonnes of rice to ease upward pressure on food prices in this landlocked country of 12 million people.
One grain trader in Bamako told IRIN this measure had actually depressed grain prices in the capital.
"Right now a 50 kg sack of rice has gone to 13,000 CFA (US $24) from 16,000 (US $29) in January," Madou Coulibaly, a trader in Banconi market, said.
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