CLOSE observers of world news may be aware of the drought currently afflicting Ethiopia. The crisis cannot help but ring alarm bells by bringing to mind the harrowing images of the 1984 famine, which prompted the Live Aid fund-raising initiative.
But it has been less well reported that the drought is affecting the entire Sahel region of Africa: the hot, dry band of land which starts in Senegal on the west coast and reaches as far as Chad.
Hence the Christian charity Tearfund has launched a campaign this week to raise awareness of the grave situation in Chad, one of the poorest countries in the world. “We’re focusing on the little-known country of Chad because the situation there is so extreme,” the charity’s chief executive, Nigel Harris, says. “It’s estimated that a third of the country are now deemed to be ‘food insecure’, which basically means they are going hungry, and 1.6 million will be severely so. It is a critical situation.”
Yet the current emergency has been brewing for more than a decade, aid agencies say: they have been calling on rich countries to respond more effectively to the plight of the Sahel region since 2005. Back then, delays in international funding resulted in the late purchase and delivery of food to people who were literally starving to death. The same bottleneck in international aid persists today: the Financial Tracking Service says that Chad is currently waiting for $978,526 of outstanding pledges from Western countries.
When the drought hit again in 2010, a spokeswoman for Oxfam, Kirsty Hughes, said: “In parts of the Sahel, people are scavenging for wild leaves and seeds. In aid ministries around the world, they know this is happening, they know what needs to happen, and they know that the last time there was a slow response to a major food crisis there, in 2005, delays cost lives, and it took years for people to recover. The question is: Why don’t you act?”
It was the same story two years later. “Many families have still not yet recovered from the food crisis of 2010,” the humanitarian director of CARE International, Barbara Jackson, explained in 2012. “The world needs to accept that many parts of the Sahel are now in a state of chronic crisis.”
For exhausted Chadians, then, this recent flare-up of a perennial problem does not come as a surprise; and yet they are powerless to take the long-term steps that would prevent it happening again. An old Chadian proverb sums it up: “The hungry have no ears”: when food is such a consuming focus, the people have no capacity to think, or learn, or plan for the future.
TEARFUND has provided support for Chad throughout the recurrent crises, but the team that recently visited returned particularly shocked. “My colleagues have seen a lot,” Mr Harris said. “But they were appalled and heartbroken by what they saw out there.”
The story of Jumana, a mother of six, was especially affecting. To feed her family, Jumana has to dig through an ants’ nest in 50-degree heat, collecting the small seeds buried there for her children to eat. Jumana has been facing devastating food crises on and off for many years; one of her children has already died of malnutrition.
“We do extreme things to survive,” she says. “I used to be a very strong woman, but now I have been reduced to thinking only of how I can feed my family. Before, I had many dreams — I thought we could buy and sell cattle, and then send the children to school. But now, that is not possible.” She weaves baskets and mats to sell at market. It takes seven days to weave one basket, which can be sold for the price of just two meals.
Jumana’s husband leaves the village for periods to find work, but earns next to nothing. Indeed, it is common for men to go abroad to make money in times of food insecurity, which is why women are thought to fare worse in these crises. CARE International says that food shortage in this region also increases the rate of divorce; and yet, paradoxically, contributes to the number of early marriages, because heads of households are seeking ways to reduce the number of mouths they have to feed.
Every family in Jumana’s village of Hillé Bar is in a similar situation, and has to rely on plundering ants’ nests for a meagre amount of sustenance. They also collect sugar cane, grind it down, and mix it with water to give their children extra energy. “Yasmin goes to play,” Jumana says, gesturing to her six-year-old daughter, “but her hunger prevents her from playing. And when she is hungry, she will come and lay down close to me on the mat.” Parents eat as little food as they can so that the children can have more.
THE causes of the crisis are complex. Harvests have failed year after year, owing to the lack of seasonal rains. As a result, hundreds of thousands of livestock have died for want of food and water.
These already vulnerable communities are also affected by the El Niño phenomenon, the periodic heating of the eastern tropical Pacific, which alters global weather patterns. The current El Niño is one of the strongest ever recorded, driving people already suffering from the effects of climate change deeper into poverty. The changing climate also makes future crop planning difficult.
Conflict is also a significant factor: fighting in neighbouring countries has driven an estimated 450,000 refugees, primarily from Central African Republic and Sudan, into Chad, which has put additional pressure on its already limited resources. Tensions between ethnic groups within Chad itself have further contributed to its vulnerability.
In response, Tearfund has developed a blunt fund-raising initiative, “Give like Jesus”. “We know that it’s a hard-hitting title for a campaign,” they say. “But we want to present a challenge to Christians in the UK to have a whole-life response to the God who gives us everything. This can mean giving your time, it can mean joining with the oppressed in prayer, or adding your voice to a campaign; but it also means financially standing alongside the global poor.
“We’re also seeking to engender a much broader awareness about the nature of disaster. A disaster is not just an emergency situation like a hurricane; it can also be a slow-onset crisis with many complex causes. All of these situations require our compassionate response.”
Working with a Chadian partner, Projet Evangélique de Développement Communautaire (PEDC), and local churches, the charity is investing in sustainable solutions besides simply supplying emergency food relief. In Hillé Bar, for example, most of the population are Muslim, but a small church is working with PEDC on a project to develop new communal nursery areas. The river is rapidly drying up; so the aim is to move the crops closer to the remaining water supply.
Other longer term interventions include planting kitchen gardens, providing seeds, and supporting irrigation schemes. In addition, PEDC is working with the church to replant trees, so the farmland can be rejuvenated.
It is hoped that, once people are brought back from near-starvation, this work can be expanded, and new livelihoods can be established to provide greater resilience, and, finally, a degree of sustainable hope for the future.
For more information, or to make a donation, visit www.tearfund.org/disastersappeal.