Signs of hope in Lake Chad basin where 11 million need humanitarian aid

Families staying in the back of this church in Yola are from Michika, Madagali and Gwosa, some of the areas worst hit by Boko Haram attacks in Adamawa and Borno states. (Credit: EU/ECHO/Isabel Coello/flickr)

More than 7 million people living in West Africa’s Lake Chad basin are surviving on just one meal a day, a U.N. official warned.

With millions of Nigerians displayed from their homes, a regional crisis is brewing. U.N. Humanitarian Coordinator for the Sahel Toby Lanzer said that international help is crucial for people living in Cameroon, Chad, Niger and Nigeria, and to prevent a deadly hunger crisis.

“I wish I had good news, but I don’t,” Lanzer said at a news conference. “When it comes to the humanitarian situation we are faced with 11 million people in desperate need of humanitarian aid, 7.1 million of them are severely food insecure. What it really means is people are living on the edge.”

It is not as dire than the November warning issued by U.N. humanitarian coordinator Peter Lundberg that up to 75,000 Nigerian children could die from malnutrition. That may be because the situation is slowly improving in Nigeria, the main cause of the regional crisis. Adrian Ouvry, Mercy Corps’ regional humanitarian program adviser, recently visited some of northeastern Nigeria’s displacement camps. He returned feeling cautiously optimistic.

“Crisis levels of malnutrition are being overcome,” he told Humanosphere. “These places are not out of the woods, but they getting better.”

More food is being distributed in the region. The number of people receiving food aid grew by 350 percent in the past five months, according to the U.N. Yet, the 2.25 million people who got food aid in December represent less than half of the total need in the country. The Humanitarian Response Plan for 2016 received only 44 percent of the needed funding.

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Ouvry credited the International Committee of the Red Cross and Doctors Without Borders for accessing some of the hardest-to-reach communities. It is crucial because the situation is not uniform across the region. It is suspected that there may be famine in the town of Bama, an area cut off from humanitarian assistance.

“We still don’t really know what is going on there, but when we finally get access we will probably see there have been pockets of famine,” said Ouvry.

The Islamist terror group Boko Haram is the main source for the region’s insecurity. Bama is situated on the front lines of the fight between Boko Haram and the Nigerian military. The successful effort to push back the group stagnated in recent months.

Those gains allowed humanitarian assistance to reach more people in recent months, Lanzer said. It also helped groups get a better sense of the needs on the ground. More than 1.6 million people from Adamawa, Borno and Yobe states are displaced from their homes. Another 2.5 million people are living as refugees in neighboring countries.

Ouvry visited displacement camps in Dikwa and Ngala, home to nearly 150,000 people. People there told him that they do not feel safe enough to leave the town to collect firewood.  The camps are not always safe, either. The Nigerian air force accidentally struck a camp in Rann last week killing at least 236 people.

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“The fact that the Nigerian army were very quick to apologize and admit it was a mistake is a silver lining in the terrible incident,” said Ouvry.

Amid the challenges are opportunities. Improved security and access mean programs can start helping to rebuild communities and ensure people get back to their normal lives. Mercy Corps is looking to programs that would support job creation through reconstruction and provide seed support for farmers. The camps provide the opportunity to reach a lot of people in a small area, but the ultimate goal is to get people home.

“We’d rather have the challenge to reach people over a wider area who can get back on their feet and facilitate themselves, rather than have them sitting in the camp,” said Ouvry.

He, like Lanzer, said that the international community needs to do more to support the humanitarian needs in the region. And also pointed to the lack of funds as detrimental to the effort. Opportunity is on the horizon with the announcement of a donor conference for the region slated to take place on Feb. 24 in Oslo, Norway.

“We hope that with the leadership of Norway, Germany, Nigeria and the support of the UN, we can convince many member states to go to Oslo and make statements of political support and also, we hope, material support, that will allow the agencies to do their work to save lives, as well as give people a hand up,” he said.

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About Author

Tom Murphy

Tom Murphy is a New Hampshire-based reporter for Humanosphere. Before joining Humanosphere, Tom founded and edited the aid blog A View From the Cave. His work has appeared in Foreign Policy, the Huffington Post, the Guardian, GlobalPost and Christian Science Monitor. He tweets at @viewfromthecave. Contact him at tmurphy[at]humanosphere.org.