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Last Updated: Monday, 15 August 2005, 15:07 GMT 16:07 UK
Drought diary V: Avoiding disaster in Mali
Mark Snelling
Mark hopes a timely response will prevent Mali becoming as bad as Niger

Mark Snelling is a member of the British Red Cross Society's Emergency Response Unit in Niger.

He has been keeping a diary for the BBC News website.

In his fifth entry, Mark travels to neighbouring Mali, where up to one million people need food aid.

Saturday, 13 August

Back in Timbuktu, we meet up with Eric, our logistician from the British Red Cross unit, who has flown over from Niger. He's been busy in Timbuktu, hiring trucks and organising warehousing.

Our trip was instructive and useful, but a comprehensive understanding of this region's needs remains frustratingly elusive.

We know that the scale of the problem is not yet on a par with Niger's. There is still time.

Animal carcass
The death of animals is storing up problems for the future
We also know that there is no use in exaggerating the situation before we fully understand it.

There is no doubt whatsoever, though, that the population here is walking the sharpest of knife edges.

Widespread severe malnutrition may not have arrived, as yet, but Mali sits where Niger was a few months ago.

Any further delay in rainfall, any further rises in the price of food and any further deterioration in the health of livestock will tip a precarious situation into a critical one.

So we return to the same questions. Do we decide that we will not act here because people are yet to die in large numbers?

Are we happy for people to suffer unspeakable hardship because we don't have famine footage for the television networks?

One of my Malian colleagues says he has not seen animals in this state since the country's two previous hunger crises of 1985 and 1973.

I don't need a degree in veterinary science to understand what that means.

Red Cross distributions will begin over the next two weeks, coupled with assessments of the wider needs. There are other NGOs in the region and the cooperation so far has been excellent. But a comprehensive long-term strategy is called for.

Averting disaster here will not be as newsworthy as a media-saturated emergency response. I hope it is to be the former.

Friday, 12 August

We're up at 0430 and back on the road.

From Gourma Rharous, we will sweep south through two communes - Haribomo and Bambara Maoude - before heading back to Timbuktu.

Houtafa Ag Moussa
If there is no rain, the rest of my animals will die... and so will we
Houtafa Ag Moussa
At each location, we meet local officials to tell them about the planned distributions.

Fred, our IT technician from the Ivory Coast Red Cross, takes a look at any radios that might need upgrading for the operation. Idrissa, the Mali Red Cross logistics coordinator, investigates local warehousing.

And the stories keep coming. "The rain has stopped and the grass isn't growing," says Houtafa Ag Moussa.

We find the 64-year-old walking from Gourma to conduct some business, while family members look after the herd. They've moved 50km south of their village to try and find pasture.

Houtafa has lost more than 50 head of cattle in the last three months, mostly females, so there is no milk for the family and his herd will stop reproducing.

A portion of any herd is normally traded for food, but a 100kg sack of millet now costs five goats. It used to be one or two.

"If there is no rain, the rest of my animals will die... and so will we," says Houtafa.

A doctor in Haribomo explains that he cannot treat cases of malnutrition because people are too spread out.

Food circulates in the town, although few will eat more than once a day, but it is those out in remoter areas whom he most fears for.

Thursday, 11 August

We set off for Gourma Rharous, some 160km east of Timbuktu, for a wider look at the region.

In villages along the way, the story becomes depressingly predictable. Vast areas that should be green are not.

If there is grass at all, it is yellowed and cracked. Aside from the immediate lack of fodder this year, grass that does not grow properly will not reseed itself and pastures and the animal fodder they provide will simply disappear next year.

Another two to three weeks of no rain, villagers say, and the damage will be irreparable.

Crops are not faring much better. "Even if there is a harvest, it will still not be enough," says Mamadou Diallo, a local official in Aglal village. "We were promised a distribution from the government, but it hasn't arrived yet."

Aglal is deserted, and herein lies a primary obstacle to any distribution in these parts. Following a Tuareg rebellion over rights and autonomy in the 1990s, peace talks secured agreements from the nomads that they would settle for at least part of the year in established communities, allowing them access to education and health care.

That system is now fast disintegrating as the heads of households are forced ever further afield in search of animal fodder. Traditionally the whole family would move, but as resources dwindle, the old, the weak and the sick are left behind.

They have no choice. Both the traditional way of life and the adapted model collapse.

We get to Gourma Rharous as night falls, passing the carcasses of dead cows and camels as we enter the town.

The president of the local Red Cross branch provides a warm welcome and we bed down for the night on the roof of a house.

Wednesday, 10 August

The details will require time and patience; the chronic desperation, however, is there for all to see.

In Tindjambane village, 18km east of Timbuktu, we meet Amatullah, an 89-year-old trying to take care of grandchildren. Her daughter died three years ago, and her son-in-law has left with the remaining livestock to try and find decent pasture.

A lot of NGOs visited last year to evaluate our situation - they never came back
Hamid Mohamed Lamine
Village chief
She sits in her tent with one of her grandsons, Mohamed. He is six years old but he looks three or four, the result of years of malnutrition.

"When I think about how life used to be here and what it's like now, I can't even talk about it," she says.

A few metres further on, Fatima - another octogenarian - shelters from the pitiless heat with her grandson Mustafa. He is 10 and severely disabled.

Fatima's children have also left to look for pasture, leaving her in charge of a household of children with no means whatsoever to support them.

Mustafa cannot walk or even move on his own, she explains, so she can't try and find any food herself. They live on handouts.

"Grain is too expensive and all the animals are gone. We are totally dependent on other people if we want to survive," she tells me.

The head of the village, Hamid Mohamed Lamine, points to the small dunes and sandy scrub that surround the village.

"At this time of year, that should all be green," he says. "If we don't get rain soon, it will destroy the animals, it will destroy the community, it will destroy everything."

Hamid is not overly impressed by our visit. "A lot of NGOs visited last year to evaluate our situation and told us they would tell donors about us and come and do projects. They never came back."

We will be distributing here, but it feels like an insult to tell him that before it actually happens. They've been let down too many times.

Tuesday, 9 August

Timbuktu. In a lifetime of roaming the face of this planet, I never thought I'd make it here.

The reality, of course, could never quite live up to the enticing mystique surrounding the name.

It is a dusty, dreary town, pock-marked with construction sites and stalls selling Tuareg trinkets to moody backpackers.

But after two bone-shuddering days in a Land cruiser, it is a blessed relief to get here.

I left the capital, Bamako, yesterday with a Red Cross team comprising specialists redeployed from the Niger operation along with a Malian logistician and nutritionist.

The team is preparing the ground in three districts around Timbuktu for a distribution to some 2,800 families, mostly Bella and Tuareg nomads who together make up the Tamashek community.

The needs are likely to be far greater.

Mali has not reached Niger's crisis levels, but every indicator suggests they could be heading in that direction. The price of grain has more than quadrupled in the last two years and the market value of livestock has collapsed, creating a disaster in the making for pastoralist communities.

Of greatest concern is that the rainy season has not arrived as it should have done - unlike Niger - further decimating the little pasture that survived last year's drought and locust plague.

Precise nutritional evaluations are going to be challenging in the extreme. The Spanish Red Cross representative in Bamako is using maps of traditional wells and watering holes in order to establish where these populations are to be found.

Other agencies such as Veterinaires Sans Frontieres (Vets without Borders) are also providing essential information.

At which point, as always, it comes back down to the slow graft of field work.

Do you have any questions about the relief effort or want Mark to explain anything in his diary? Then drop him a line using the form below.

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David Amar from the UK asked whether rice is always the most important and cost effective food to deliver in similar crises.

Rice may not be the most effective food in all circumstances. The areas affected by the current crisis are both cereal and rice eating regions. Cereals (millet and sorghum) are the staple for most people, but rice will also be eaten, particularly on important occasions such as festivals.

Rice is generally more expensive than cereals, but takes less preparation as millet has to be pounded and winnowed before being eaten. Both rice and cereals have good nutritional value and so the decision which to provide in this situation will be largely based on cost and availability, as both are acceptable to the beneficiaries.

Plumpy Nut and Unimix are also being used in Niger. Plumpy Nut is a ready-to-eat nutritional supplement used to treat seriously malnourished children. It's made of fortified peanut butter enriched with milk, vitamins and minerals. The formula comes in a foil packet small enough for a child to grasp. Children are given two packets a day. They suck the paste from the bag between meals. The formula helps them to gain weight rapidly.

Unimix is a vitamin enriched flour. It's used for supplementary feeding (in addition to a general ration) for seriously malnourished populations. The flour is made into a porridge and is easy for malnourished children to digest.

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