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Last Updated: Thursday, 8 September 2005, 00:09 GMT 01:09 UK
Mauritania's deadly daily poverty
By Pascale Harter
BBC News, Mauritania

Mohamed Nour (r) and his mother Selka
Mohamed Nour (r) and his mother Selka eat once a day
Sitting in a feeding centre in Mauritania, one-year-old Mohamed Nour's stomach is swollen but not with food. His bony wrists are thicker than his arms.

Yet his proud mother Selka is adamant that she has enough to feed her son. He eats as she does, once a day.

"We had porridge yesterday and the day before and three days ago we had couscous," she says.

But Mohamed is not from south-eastern Mauritania, the part of the country worst hit by the failure of last year's harvests which has killed hundreds in Niger.

Mohamed lives in the dusty, rubbish-strewn slums of Mauritania's capital, Nouakchott.

"Chronic malnutrition is a big problem here," says Mohamed Barou of the International Committee of the Red Cross, which runs the feeding centre.

Infant deaths

Chronic malnutrition is what happens when a child is fed, but starved of the vitamins, minerals and proteins he needs to grow.

Unlike severe malnutrition, the child does not necessarily become visibly sick or instantly at risk.

Child drinking rain water
Despite a cholera outbreak, children drink rain water
But chronic malnutrition can be just as deadly, leaving children vulnerable to disease. The medical community in Mauritania believes it is why there is an extremely high rates of infant deaths in the country.

"One hundred and nine deaths per 1,000 children," says Mr Barou, "compared to three per 1,000 in Spain".

He says many people do not realise their children are not well, which explains why there are just 10 mothers in the centre.

"The mothers cannot see this type of malnutrition, that comes slowly. For the mother even if the child is thin, if he is without illness, then he is well. But really the child is slipping slowly into chronic malnutrition".

For the slum children whose only toys are discarded wheels they steer around on sticks, a rainstorm in this sand-blasted town is irresistible.

They dance in the downpour, stretching their hands up to reach the raindrops and sticking out their tongues. They swim in the mud-rivers - now open sewers - carrying the cholera bacteria.

There were 100 new cases everyday in the epidemic recently ravaging Nouakchott.

Cholera is a disease of the poor, born of too many people living cheek by jowl without the infrastructure of a sewer system or clean drinking water.

And children dying of malnutrition and cholera in a capital city in the 21st Century is a culmination of a slow-working food crisis, less dramatic, but perhaps eventually just as deadly as the situation in Niger.

New arrivals

Sidi Hamoud's wife weighs dusty porridge oats into small polythene bags to sell. The rest of the family watch hungrily.

Sidi is finding the spells between work as a labourer longer now he is old and arthritis hampers his movements.

He came to Nouakchott in the drought of 1986. He says he can't provide for his five children, let alone the cousins, nieces and nephews who turn up year after year when they leave the village.

Sidi Hamoud and his family
Sidi Hamoud (l) says he has 'no problems'
This year could see an explosion of new arrivals into the crowded slums of Nouakchott.

Aid agency World Vision report that farmers in the south-east have already sold precious livestock for food, after locusts wiped out last year's harvest.

Now they are living on credit against this year's harvest.

The price of basic food has also shot. Camel milk, rice and a kilo of ground bone (meat is too expensive), have all doubled in price since last year.

This means that even when rural families leave the parched fields for the well-stocked shops of the capital, they can't afford to feed themselves.

But this does not count as an emergency, when severe malnutrition takes hold.

Measured this way, Mauritania is doing well. Although aid workers say one out of three children brought to the therapeutic feeding centres and hospitals are dying, malnutrition is only found in pockets and as yet, the numbers are not high enough to warrant the attention of the television cameras.

Besides, the United Nations World Food Programme says the situation in Mauritania is under control.


"The government put in a timely appeal," says Jean-Martin Bauer of the WFP in Nouakchott, "and donor response was good".

Unlike Niger, Mauritania has assets that make a host of generous donors eager to show their goodwill.

Woman carrying firewood
Mauritanians are hoping for a good harvest this year
There are the companies drilling for oil, foreign embassies who want to patrol the porous desert borders for terrorists, and European countries who have run out of fish stocks and want to move on to Mauritania's teeming waters.

The WFP has been able to hand out food aid through partner organisations such as World Vision for months now, protecting an estimated 1 million from hunger. That's more than a third of Mauritania's entire population.

But when the "pockets of severe malnutrition" disappear, so too will the emergency aid and yet the situation in Mauritania will not be under control.

Families will still fall into debt because of failed crops, they will still find basic foods beyond their reach in the capital, and malnutrition and cholera will still prey on their children.

In the cholera-infected slum, Sidi Hamoud tells me stiffly that "Praise be to Allah," he has "no problems", although we both know he could choose from a wide variety.

The truth is that a crisis situation has become difficult to identify, even for Mauritanians.

Thanks to grinding poverty, death from curable disease is part of everyday life.

Inside a feeding centre in Mauritania

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