Chad: United in the indignity of hunger

by Mary-Ellen McGroarty | World Food Programme
Friday, 14 October 2016 17:45 GMT

In this 2009 file photo, children displaced by war play on a tree near the town of Gos Beida in eastern Chad. REUTERS/Emmanuel Braun

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* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Travelling across Chad reveals the human cost behind the country's hunger statistics

In Chad, the three international days observed this week - the International Day of the Girl Child, the International Day of Rural Women and World Food Day - could not be more relevant. Progress is urgent to achieve Zero Hunger by 2030.

Chad, landlocked, with deep and widespread poverty, hunger and malnutrition, suffered the ravages of war and conflict for decades until 2008. Bordered by countries where conflict and insecurity are rife, it hosts one of the largest populations of displaced people on the continent - refugees, returnees and internally displaced communities.

The discovery of oil brought hope of development and growth.  But over the course of 2015 and 2016, the country’s fortunes have been sharply reversed.  The combined effects of a decline in global oil prices, violence and terror trickling in from north-eastern Nigeria, desertification, and a changing and erratic pattern of rainfall have all conspired to create deeper hunger and malnutrition.

On October 12 we presented the results of the Cost of Hunger study in Chad, work undertaken in collaboration with the government of Chad and the African Union. Forty-three percent of infant deaths are associated with under-nutrition. One in five children is born underweight. Hunger and malnutrition cost Chad 9.5 percent of its Gross Domestic Product (GDP) in lost productivity, costs to health services, education and households - in 2012, a staggering $1.1 billion dollars, over twice the amount of aid receipts that year. The global hunger index for 2016, also released this week, ranks Chad second from bottom of 118 countries.

When I travel across Chad, I see the human cost behind these figures, the impact of hunger and malnutrition, particularly on children and women.  And when I say travelling, I mean bumpy sandy roads, through sweeping wadis (valleys); beds in simple but hospitable guesthouses, or at makeshift shelters.  Night music is the sound of silence, in darkness or the whirr of a generator. A treat is the refreshment of a cold shower at the end of a hot, dusty day.  But even this, for the majority of Chad’s people, is a luxury, a dream.

In the Sahel, scores of mothers wait in the baking sun, cradling underweight children in their arms, to be seen by health staff.  Rains were poor again in 2015. During the lean season, June to September, food is extremely scarce; the animals are also getting thin.  Families are finding it hard to sell livestock.  Children may not go back to school when the new year begins.  Water is precious. Travelling across the Sahel, you get a glimpse of life in the desert.

The theme of this year’s World Food Day, “Climate is changing, food and agriculture must too” really hits home. Ever-expanding sand dunes threaten seasonal rivers; crop and pasture production is at the mercy of desertification and erratic rainfall patterns.

In the Lake Chad region, families seek refuge at makeshift sites, having fled the terror wrought by Boko Haram. Over 130,000 people have lost their homes and way of life. The women, strong resilient women, tell me of the simple life they had on the islands, not a rich life, but their paradise. A life wrenched from them when they fled with their children, with only the clothes on their backs.  They share the stories of the generosity and welcome from local communities, communities themselves struggling because of the crisis. Humanitarian assistance provides some welcome relief, but this not enough. These communities need our help to rebuild their lives, rebuild hope, rebuild a future for their children.  

On the border with Sudan, over 290,000 Sudanese people are living in camps. These camps have been their home for over 12 years. In the south of Cha, tens of thousands of people who escaped conflict in the Central African Republic live as refugees and returnees in camps and amongst host villages. With international assistance decreasing, food rations are being reduced year by year. Over 40 percent of the refugee children are stunted.

Women, men, children, refugees: in Chad, people have a strength to match the sun that beats down relentlessly on the vast, largely underdeveloped landscape. Many I met lived a simple life before their world was torn apart by conflict and violence, many are on the frontlines of a changing climate. Now they are united in the indignity of unacceptable hunger and malnutrition, not of their making.  They must not be forgotten.

Mary Ellen McGroarty is Chad country director of World Food Programme.