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BAMAKO, 20 June (IRIN) - Food prices are soaring and precious cattle are dying in Mali as a result of drought and last year's locust swarms. The government has called for urgent food assistance to avert malnutrition among more than a million vulnerable people.
A government survey carried out earlier this year found that 1.1 million people in 101 communities in the central Mopti region, Timbuktu in the north and the western region of Kayes, may lack proper food before the next harvests in September.
"If energetic decisions are not made quickly, the nutritional state of the population will deteriorate," Mary Diallo director of the government-run Early Warning System (SAP), told IRIN.
"Already the rate of malnutrition has worsened," said Diallo, referring to a previous study in October that identified 83 communities vulnerable to food shortages.
Food shortages are a perennial problem in impoverished Mali, where farmers typically endure a belt-tightening lean season from July to the September harvest. But this year will be worse than last, according to the government, as production is down to 2.8 million tonnes compared to 3.3 million in 2004.
The majority of the 101 communities facing duress were in the populous Mopti region in central Mali, although isolated nomadic communities of the arid north may be the most in danger.
Diallo said there could be a malnutrition rate of 40 percent in the north, where the European Union has agreed to carry out further investigations.
There was an urgent need for more information about the situation north of the Niger River, said Nick Ireland of the UK charity Oxfam.
"In the north we found quite shocking signs of malnutrition and we are urging [French NGO] Action Contre La Faim (ACF) and the [UN's] World Food Programme (WFP) to go there and make their own studies," said Ireland, who is based at Oxfam's West Africa headquarters in Senegal.
According to Ireland, isolated herding communities have clustered around remote wells in a desperate bid to save their animals, unaware of the prospect or possibility of outside food assistance.
In May, Oxfam reported that among pastoral communities "infant mortality reached record levels this year" and "one family in five has lost a child in the last six months".
The government of Mali has already distributed more than half of its annual food stocks of millet and sorghum to hungry populations for free. Cereals are also being sold at knock-down prices in some areas.
The government has enough funds to buy in a further 23,500 tonnes of dry cereal, but according to Diallo, there still won't be enough food to go around.
Some areas of the north, according to ACF, have production deficits of 48 percent.
Pablo Recalde of the WFP told IRIN that an appeal for US $7.4 million of food assistance received just three million dollars, seriously limiting their capacity to help.
"We envisage a difficult situation which we will not be able to assuage unless the rains fall," said Recalde. "If it does not rain there will be an emergency."
Rains did begin to fall in May and should, in theory, continue through the first harvest and into October. Farmers use this period for preparing and sowing their ground for the next season's harvest.
"If the rains are abundant, the grasses will grow and the pastures will return so that herds can move around for grazing again," said Reclade.
This year, usually lush land in Mali's Niger River valley has been overgrazed by herders from neighbouring Burkina Faso, Niger and Mauritania who left their own land after locusts stripped vegetation bare.
"These herds are now essentially blocked in as the water points have been drained," said Recalde.
According to French food charity ACF, the banks of the Niger between Gao and Timbuktu in the north, and the area close to the border with Niger and Burkina in the east, are worst affected.
"It is certain that a significant number of animals will die" around the rare watering points, according to a report by ACF. "It is unlikely that there is enough water and pasture for all these animals, which number in the hundreds of thousands."
The government's SAP department estimates that between 10 to 15 percent of the national cattle stock may perish.
According to Diallo, water shortages have been more damaging in Mali than last year's locust swarms, the worst infestation in the region for 15 years.
"Pastures were not correctly irrigated and rice production fell substantially as a result," he said.
In the capital Bamako and the trading town of Sikasso, 300 km to the southeast, one kilo of rice was trading at 500 CFA (US $1) more than twice the price the previous year - 232 FCA (US 45 cents).
An ongoing crisis in nearby Cote d'Ivoire is also taking its toll with many basic manufactured goods now too expensive for impoverished Malians to buy.
"Cote d'Ivoire was the economic lung of Mali," said Recalde. "Costs for many things have gone up 30 to 40 percent."
The southern port city of Abidjan was the main hub for imported and exported goods across Francophone West Africa. But following an attempted coup in September 2002, the country has been split in two, disrupting trade routes.
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