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28 May 2013 - Mali faces a heightened risk of severe food shortages at the onset of the annual ‘hunger season’, with on-going conflict and its aftermath exacerbating the situation.
Fighting is continuing in some parts of the north, the Malian army lacks any significant presence in Kidal - the last town in the desert north yet to fall under government control where MNLA Tuareg separatists have a stronghold - and a new threat has now emerged in the form of marauding gangs regularly attacking villages and food supplies.
'The departure of the French army, the continued absence of the Malian army in Kidal, and no clear agenda or timing in sight about the deployment, funding and leadership of the new UN peace keeping force, has encouraged the MNLA to take full advantage of the security vacuum,' said Yacouba Kone, Christian Aid's Mali country manager.
'This has also stimulated the formation of roaming gangs who are regularly raiding cattle, looting vital food stores, and attacking peaceful people in their villages.'
He added that many Malians question whether the UN force when it does arrive will be up to the job it is intended for.
'Except for the Chadian troops, most of the UN soldiers have no experience of fighting in this specific context, and because of the resulting high levels of insecurity, humanitarian agencies are still facing huge problems of gaining access to communities most in need,' he said.
'In Ber, 60km from Timbuctu, Tuareg and Arabs are still fighting which not only discourages the return of thousands of displaced civilians, but also drastically reduces the functioning of northern trading systems, thus further impacting on an already fragile food security situation.
'Adding to the food insecurity is the fact that many farmers are afraid to work on the land because of the proliferation of mines and other anti-personnel weapons left over from the conflict lying unexploded in their fields.
'We will need to prepare for another high cereal deficit in the next harvest period. The hungry season will be particularly acute because there is a frightening lack of cereal and grain stocks, and the rainy season is predicted to start much earlier this year which will very likely damage crops and seedlings,' warned Kone.
In the northern towns of Kidal and Gao basic foods such as rice, oil, pasta, and sugar are either very scarce or being sold for extortionate sums, while cereal prices rocketed by between 30 and 70 per cent in April, according to FEWS NET (Famine Early Warning Systems Network).
'For the average person in Mali right now, the gap between having enough food to feed their family or not is rapidly closing - it’s a balancing act at the moment,' Kone added.