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Last Updated: Tuesday, 9 August 2005, 23:38 GMT 00:38 UK
Mali's nomads face famine
By David Loyn
BBC News, Timbuktu, Mali

After two weeks reporting the crisis both in Niger and then Mali, it was here in Timbuktu, in the far north of the affected region, that I first heard the word famine.

Hungry family in Mali
The situation is Mali is not as bad as in Niger - yet
It is a word which aid workers do not like to use unless there is persistent hunger, and a real threat of death on a large scale.

There is not a famine here - not yet - but my informant, a local representative of the World Food Programme, said that if the rains do not come, and more aid does not arrive, then Timbuktu could be facing a famine by the end of this month.

The facts are stark - there are 447 tonnes of millet and sorghum in the warehouse here, and they need 1,000 tonnes just to keep up with the need they have identified now.

If the drought continues, then the needs will become much greater.

But the WFP's appeal for food has raised just 12% of what was needed for Mali, just the same as in Niger before the world attention was focussed there early last month.

Fragile life

The causes of the crisis in Mali are similar to those in Niger: climate change has made life much more vulnerable; there was a poor harvest last year because of drought, followed by a plague of locusts, which seem to have struck here harder than Niger.

Both farmers who rely on crops, and nomads who rely on animals, are short of water, and the long term effects on nomads could be severe.

Two of the remaining six nomad groups in Africa live in this region, and there are even predictions that the present crisis could hasten the end of their fragile way of life.

The nomads rely on selling their animals to buy millet and sorghum to eat.

This year the price of animals has gone down, while the price of grains to eat has doubled in the major towns, and risen even higher in remote rural areas.

Retired schoolteacher Yusuf Gitay, who is old enough to remember the famine of 1973, which killed thousands, said that 2005 could be the worst year since then.

Driving across arid desert near his home village Almou Serrat, he said that at this time of year it should be green, and dotted with nomad tents.

Thousands of Touaregs have moved south in search of pasture, although many have lost all of their animals already.

Nothing to eat

Fewer people live in the affected zone in Mali than in Niger, one million against 3.6 million, and there are other differences too.

International NGOs have more programmes operating here, and were better prepared for the crisis, while the government too was able to ease the impact of the drought with two major distributions of food, one last October, and one in June.

The government also appears to have been more successful in ensuring that food was delivered on time.

One of the issues which compounded the problems in Niger was the non-delivery of 30,000 tonnes of food in June.

Travelling with a government doctor, whose work is partly financed by aid agency Care International UK, I visited the homes of families where malnourished children were found in a survey two months ago, but are now recovering thanks to food aid.

But like many people here, Doctor Malane ag Mitipi was concerned about the future.

Forward planning has saved lives, robust and independent nomad groups have seen hardship before, but the coping mechanisms will not help if it does not rain as it should before the end of August.

Many nomads have pitched their tents inside Timbuktu town itself, since there is nothing to eat in the countryside.

It is a clear sign that this is a severe crisis.

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