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Friday, 1 November, 2002, 10:46 GMT
Mauritania's year of hardship
Men show how little there is to eat a feeding centre
Poor rains have affected Mauritania, Mali and Senegal

The Aftout region of Mauritania has been through six poor harvests in a row.

But this year's is likely to be by far the worst.

This is not the first drought to hit this part of the world... but now the coping mechanisms have gone

Bob Doerr
World Vision
The rains which normally come between June and August stayed away.

Farmers dependent on the production of crops like sorghum and millet have found themselves with nothing.

Owners of livestock looked on helplessly as the drought decimated their herds.

The effects of the drought can be seen clearly in Chayif, a village in the Assaba region of the south.

Malnutrition

Dozens of children who would normally be out drinking milk in the bush at this time of year instead wait their turn in a feeding centre supervised by the international aid organisation, World Vision, which has been working in Mauritania for the past 20 years.

Severe rates of malnutrition have been reported here and in neighbouring villages.

Scooping out water at a feeding centre
Water is a precious commodity

While most of the children are making a reasonable recovery, some still have the swollen stomachs and copper-coloured hair which point to serious food shortages.

In rural Mauritania, children traditionally eat first, adults taking what is left.

With milk and vegetables in short supply, wild grass and baobab leaves have been added to the usual diet.

Carcasses

Satif, the head of the village in Chayif, admits there is little he and other leaders can do to alleviate the problems.

"I myself have lost all but one of my 14 cows and many of my goats. There were animal carcasses all over this region".

Mauritania has a population of just 2.7 million spread over a territory of over one million square kilometres.

But while much of the country is dominated by the desert, only a small proportion of the population now lives nomadically.

There has been a steady increase in the cultivation of crops like sorghum, but despite the government's investment in irrigation programmes and dams, farming remains a high-risk activity when rainfall is so unreliable.

In previous years, farmers have sold off livestock to compensate for poor harvests.

Slow response

But this year prices for animals have slumped disastrously, while seed prices have rocketed.

Both the Mauritanian Government and the United Nations World Food Programme (WFP) have issued urgent appeals for food aid, but aid organisations are disappointed by the slow response from donors.

At the Chayif feeding centre
Herders have been left idle by the drought

Abdoulaye Diop, a Mauritanian World Vision researcher, says he has been deeply shocked by the areas he has visited.

"People in the villages asked me: 'Why are you doing all these surveys, can't you see we need help now ?'

"I know they have hope in us, but I worry we have not done enough to win support abroad, we have not got the message across."

Migration

Bob Doerr heads World Vision's programme in the drought-hit Assaba and Tagant regions.

He accepts Mauritanians know better than anyone else how to survive the most inhospitable conditions, but says even the most resilient are finding things tougher this year.

"It's been very touching. This is not the first drought to hit this part of the world. There has been a decrease in rainfall for the past 20 years. But now the coping mechanisms have gone," he said.

Mauritanian landscape
Crops have failed in the Western Sahel

"An old herder told me it was like giving birth to a child, hoping that child would provide for you for the rest of your life and then finding that child has been born insane."

One obvious consequence of the drought has been a migration to the cities, men leaving their families behind and going to the capital, Nouakchott, and other urban centres, seeking work.

Others have taken their herds off in search of better pastures.

In both cases, the exodus has left women behind, struggling to feed their children.

At the Chayif feeding centre, women warn of more sacrifices in the future, some complaining they have already lost touch with their husbands and do not expect them to return.

See also:

14 Oct 02 | Africa
07 Mar 02 | Country profiles
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