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IRIN - Mauritania


A dozen shades of khaki: counter-insurgency operations in the Sahel

Thu, 11 Jan 2018 14:19:36 +0000

In 2011, several African states warned about the likely consequences of an international military intervention in Libya aimed at toppling Muammar Gaddafi. Now, six years after his death, security in the Sahel region has never been worse. In a domino effect, from 2012, the spillover from the Libyan crisis bolstered the Tuareg rebellion in Mali, which in turn facilitated a jihadist incursion, which, after briefly being halted by France’s Operation Serval, arose from the ashes stronger than ever and spread across neighbouring states. “Mali’s roots were rotten, it just needed a breeze to make it collapse,” summarised a former Malian minister recently. In Mali, the state is now hardly present across much of the country. In mid-December, barely a quarter of state agents were in their posts in the six northern and central regions. According to an opposition party tally, 2017 was Mali’s most deadly year since President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita came to power in 2013. Yet the Sahel region has never been so militarised; it is rife with insurgencies and counter-insurgency forces of various stripes. Relative veterans from France and the United States have recently been joined by troops from Italy and Germany, and by a new regional coalition, as well as by forms of warfare new to the region. Presented as solutions by their political masters, the military missions detailed below are seen by others as pouring fuel on the fire, and as simplistic responses to complex problems. United Nations Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in Mali (MINUSMA) Created in April 2013, this UN mission, now consisting of 13,000 troops, was supposed to stabilise northern regions of Mali after the lightning assault launched against jihadist groups there three months earlier by France’s Operation Serval (see below). Instead, MINUSMA faced a resurgence of these groups outside major urban centres and found itself exposed to mobile and seasoned guerrillas. They proved to be beyond the mission’s capabilities to control, and, arguably, peripheral to its mandate. “The UN deployed [here] without a peace accord, which is normally a precursor for a peacekeeping mission,” MINUSMA chief Mahamat Saleh Annadif told IRIN. “On the other hand, the idea that MINUSMA came here to fight terrorists has always been a major misunderstanding between Malians and MINUSMA, and unfortunately one that still exists.” Annual revisions of the mission’s mandate aimed at making the force more reactive have failed to silence critics. Both within and outside Mali, questions have been raised about the utility of spending more than a billion dollars in a single year when the mission has proved unable to fulfil its core tasks of protecting civilians and defending human rights. The killing of civilians during demonstrations by peacekeepers and accusations of rape have helped to sour pubic opinion of MINUMSA. The mission’s relations with the Malian government have frequently been strained, not least over the neutrality MINUSMA has shown towards certain rebel groups, a stance Bamako viewed as impeding the state’s recovery of its sovereignty over the entire country. The force’s limitations have frequently been highlighted. The latest report on Mali by the UN secretary-general, for example, noted that, “the lack of armoured troop carriers, especially of vehicles protected against landmines, remains a major obstacle to the mission's operations”. The previous report, issued in September, said MINUSMA’s civilian protection mandate had been compromised by the “absence of adequate air assets”. Both publically and in private, MINUSMA officials have made no secret of their frustration at being used as a punching ball and cash cow by Malian politicians. Harandane Dicko/MINUSMA Another prominent component of the force’s mandate is to oversee the implementation of the 2015 Agreement for Peace and Reconciliation in Mali. MINUSMA itself is paying the price for the breakdown of that accord: 133 blue helmets have died in Ma[...]

New Sahel anti-terror force: risks and opportunities

Mon, 30 Oct 2017 17:14:24 +0000

Burkina Faso, Chad, Mali, Mauritania, and Niger are teaming up to take on Islamist militants with the launch of a the 5,000-strong "FC-G5S" force in the restive Sahel. But are more boots on the ground the answer? UN Secretary-General António Guterres recently told the Security Council, which votes today on whether to fund the nascent multinational military force, that supporting it was “an opportunity that cannot be missed” and that failing to back it would carry serious risks for a region where insecurity has become “extremely worrying”. The Security Council “welcomed the deployment” of the force in a resolution adopted in June, but put off a decision about financing. The resolution's wording was the subject of a prolonged tussle between France – the G5 force’s main proponent – and the United States, which didn’t believe a resolution was necessary, sees the force’s mandate as too broad, and, as the world body’s biggest contributor, isn’t convinced the UN should bankroll it. On Friday, US Ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley said Washington wants to know “what the strategy would be, how they see this playing out, what’s involved in it, before we ever commit to UN-assessed funding”.  France has been working hard to win over the United States. On a visit to Washington last week, French Defence Minister Florence Parly said the former colonial power had no desire to become the “Praetorian Guard of sovereign African countries”. Existing forces In 2013 and 2014, France’s Operation Serval drove back militants in Mali’s northern desert from some of the towns and other sanctuaries they had taken. With attacks nevertheless continuing and having spread beyond Mali’s borders, 4,000 French troops are currently deployed under the banner of Operation Barkhane across all the G5 states. Mali is also home to the 14,000-strong MINUSMA force, one of the UN’s most expensive peacekeeping missions. It has come under frequent attack by militant groups such as the Jama'a Nusrat ul-Islam wa al-Muslimin (JNIM), an al-Qaeda-linked coalition forged last March. Some 86 blue helmets have been killed in militant attacks since MINUSMA was established in July 2013.   Meanwhile, efforts by civil society groups to negotiate with some jihadist groups have come to nought, while parties to a 2015 peace agreement between Mali’s government and two coalitions of domestic armed groups – a deal that excluded the jihadists – are embroiled in violent divisions among themselves. Some of these domestic groups are also responsible for attacks against the state.  These divisions have dimmed hopes of forging any kind of common front against the jihadists, and even of properly implementing the 2015 accord. The government’s failure to address widespread political and economic grievance further undermines its position. Sylvain Liechti/UN Photo The MINUSMA Camp in Kidal was targeted by intensive rocket and mortar fire Humanitarian fallout All this insecurity comes at a high price for Mali’s civilians. At the end of the 2016-17 academic year, 500 schools were closed, up from 296 the previous year, while the numbers of refugees and internally displaced reached a record 140,000 and 55,000 respectively. Acute malnutrition among children under five has reached “critical levels” in conflict-affected areas around Timbuktu and Gao, according to UNICEF. The agency predicts that 165,000 children across the country will be acutely malnourished next year. “Repeated criminal acts” prompted the International Committee of the Red Cross to suspend its operations in the northern Kidal region in mid-October. Funding concerns The primary mandate of the G5 force will be to secure the bloc’s common borders and fight “terrorist” and criminal groups. The force’s headquarters were established in September in the central Malian town of Sévaré, but its financing has yet to be secured. “Estimates still vary; nothing has bee[...]

The Grinch’s not-so-festive guide to food ration cuts

Tue, 27 Dec 2016 15:17:50 +0000

Across much of the world, the festive season is a time of indulgence. But what if you’re too busy fleeing violence and upheaval, or stuck in a refugee camp on reduced rations? It’s been a hard year for the most vulnerable among us. This is partly due to tightening aid budgets, but it’s also the result of there simply being so many more people in crisis who need help. “It's not just a question of falling donor funding; most donors have continued to be generous, providing funds at relatively consistent levels for years,” World Food Programme spokeswoman Challiss McDonough told IRIN.  “But the number of [those in need] is much larger.” A prime example is Uganda, where 602,000 South Sudanese refugees are sheltering. As a result of the conflict in neighbouring South Sudan, “we are now supporting nearly twice as many refugees as we were just six months ago”, explained McDonough. WFP, as the global emergency food responder, is feeling the strain. “I'd say there are probably very few countries where we have not had to make some kind of adjustment to our assistance plans because of a lack of funding,” said McDonough. The following is a not-so-festive guide to where WFP has been forced to make cuts to already minimal food rations in Africa. It includes some non-refugee national programmes, which have also been impacted by funding shortfalls. allowfullscreen="allowfullscreen" allowtransparency="true" frameborder="0" height="400" id="datawrapper-chart-eFGRg" mozallowfullscreen="mozallowfullscreen" msallowfullscreen="msallowfullscreen" oallowfullscreen="oallowfullscreen" src="//" webkitallowfullscreen="webkitallowfullscreen" width="100%"> Burkina Faso Rations have been reduced and cash assistance suspended for the 31,000 Malian refugees in Burkina Faso. As a result, about a quarter of refugees do not have enough food to meet their basic nutritional needs. “Most refugees in the camps depend solely on humanitarian assistance to survive,” said WFP country director Jean-Charles Dei. “When assistance is interrupted or insufficient, the food security and nutrition situation dramatically deteriorate, especially for women, children, and elderly people.” Burundi Lack of funding has impacted a range of activities targeting vulnerable communities. Food-for-training for Congolese refugees and Burundian migrants expelled from Tanzania and Rwanda has been suspended. The number of children reached through an anti-stunting campaign has been reduced by 70 percent, with the programme halted entirely in Ruramvya and Rutana provinces. Cameroon Monthly food rations for Central African Republic refugees in Cameroon was cut by 50 percent in November and December. The 150,000 refugees are entirely dependent on international aid. In May, WFP also halted its meals programme to 16 primary schools in northern Cameroon due to a lack of funding. Central African Republic WFP has been unable to assist more than 500,000 people in urgent need of aid and has been forced to halve the amount of food it has provided to those it can reach. Emergency school meals have been suspended in the capital, Bangui, and rations to displaced people in the violence-hit central town of Kaga Bandoro have been slashed by 75 percent. “WFP needs to urgently mobilise flexible contributions to cover for distributions from January onwards,” the agency has warned. Chad For the past two years, refugees in Chad have survived on monthly rations well below the minimum requirement. For some, the cuts have been by as much as 60 percent. A joint assessment released in November by WFP and the UN’s refugee agency, UNHCR, found more than 40 percent of the 400,000 refugees in Chad are malnourished and the majority of children are anaemic. Ethiopia Since November 2015, ration cuts have affected more than 760,000 refugees, the bulk of them from South Sudan and Somalia. Although there was an improvement in general food rations from June this year, UNHCR has warned that households st[...]

Debunking Mauritania’s Islamist militancy mythology

Tue, 23 Aug 2016 18:17:10 +0000

Fast-modernising Mauritania presents itself as something of a showcase for how “to do” countering violent extremism, or CVE, in Africa. Last year, the Sahelian country hosted a regional summit to discuss ways local communities could work with the authorities to confront radicalisation, an initiative warmly endorsed by the United States. US Assistant Secretary of State Bisa Williams saluted Mauritania’s past record of success on CVE, and noted its strong reputation as a centre of Islamic learning whose scholars “are well-equipped to respond to assaults on the practice of Islam and espouse messages of peace”. De-radicalisation the Mauritanian way President Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz has spoken confidently of Mauritania’s unique approach to tackling the challenge of “radical Islam” in a country that has been a self-styled Islamic republic since independence. “De-radicalisation” has become the mantra – and the drop in radical violence over the last five years has been attributed to the Mauritanian way: a mix of a security clampdown that has driven extremists out of the country, and the softer approach of CVE. Prison dialogues held in 2011 between extremist prisoners and senior Muslim moderates are portrayed as a pioneering initiative, offering an inspiring example to neighbouring countries like Mali and Niger, contending with similar problems. Abdel Aziz is still making the case for dialogue. In his Ramadan address to the nation in June, he appealed once again to Mauritania’s oulémas, or theologians, “to do more to promote the values of tolerance and social solidarity” and to use their wisdom to reach out “to the partisans of extremism”. In Mauritania’s case, “the partisans of extremism” are the men and women that have fallen victim to malign influences from outside, most notably the Algerian-led Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat (GSPC), which developed into al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) in 2007. There have been sporadic attacks in Mauritania since the mid-1980s, including raids on the French and Israeli embassies; the kidnapping and killing of Westerners; and gun battles between the security forces and militants in the centre of Nouakchott. Was there a deal? Documents seized from the US commando raid on Osama bin Laden’s compound in Pakistan, released earlier this year, suggest that AQIM was considering a truce with the Mauritanian government in 2010, which could be a reflection of the success of the security drive. The terms of the possible deal were that, for a guaranteed $11 million to $22 million a year, Mauritania would be spared any kidnappings or other terrorist activity on its soil. In return, all AQIM prisoners would be released and the government would avoid “any hostile attack against the brothers from its territories”. There is no evidence in the correspondence that the government agreed to the proposal. Mauritania has denied the authenticity of the documents and its jihadist detainees remain in prison, although there have been some spectacular escapes. Exporting extremism The main danger seems to be the export of extremism rather than domestic insurgency. No other country in the region produces as many high-ranking ideologues in the Sahelian jihadist movement as Mauritania. Nevertheless, Islamist militancy has frequently been presented as an existential threat to Mauritania’s stability. As recently as June 2015, US analyst Michael Rubin asked in the US publication Commentary: “Will Mauritania be the New Terrorist Haven?” likening Mauritania to southern Libya and warning of “AQIM’s unfettered access to most of the country”. Similar warnings were being issued more than 10 years ago, focusing particularly on the fragility of the Mauritanian state, its deteriorating economy, and the multiple frustrations of a younger generation susceptible to radical ideas. "It is quite possible to mistake radical conservatism for terrorism" But it is unclear how much suppor[...]

Briefing: The new Jihadist strategy in the Sahel

Thu, 04 Feb 2016 00:00:00 +0000

Security has been intense over the last few weeks in the Senegalese capital, Dakar, with police and soldiers on the streets, vehicle searches, and round-ups of alleged Islamist militants. It’s the response to the al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) attack in Burkina Faso on 15 January that left 30 people dead. Until the assault on the Cappuccino restaurant and the Splendid Hotel, next door on Ouagadougou’s trendy Kwame Nkrumah Avenue, Burkina Faso, like Senegal, felt safe from the jihadist violence that has destabilised other countries in the region. “We thought we were not really concerned by terrorism, that we were shielded by our armed forces and our diplomacy,” Ousmane Ouedraogo told IRIN outside his cellphone shop on Kwame Nkrumah Avenue. “But now we know we are vulnerable.” That vulnerability stems from the political instability in Burkina Faso following the youth-led toppling of Blaise Campaore after nearly three decades in power.  But there is a more fundamental fragility that has its roots in the legitimacy and authority of governments across the Sahel region, which AQIM, AQIM-linked groups, and, more recently, the self-proclaimed Islamic State (IS) are seeking to exploit. The Burkina Faso attack was carried out by the militant group al-Mourabitoun, which had recently pledged allegiance to AQIM. The targets were popular with Western aid workers, businessmen, and soldiers serving with Operation Barkhane, France’s regional counter-insurgency mission. The raid put together a team of young men based in Mali (AQIM named three but there are suggestions three escaped); at least one of the identified men seems to have been Fulani – a pastoralist ethnic group that spans West Africa; and their cars had Niger license plates. It was, then, a fine example of regional militant integration.  It followed an earlier al-Mourabitoun attack in November that killed 21 people at the Radisson Blu Hotel in the Malian capital, Bamako. It’s a fairly safe prediction that these two events are the beginning of a trend that will continue in 2016. “Three years ago, AQIM’s plan was to hold territory in northern Mali. That has changed,” Jean-Hervé Jezequel, the senior Sahel analyst at the International Crisis Group, told IRIN. “The new strategy is that instead of managing territory, they want to show they can impact a much larger area by attacking the capitals of countries collaborating with Western forces.” Why should Senegal worry? The heightened security in Dakar is a recognition of how tempting a target it is. It’s the regional base of scores of international organisations. Senegal is a pro-Western partner, especially of France and the United States, and Dakar has provided troops to the French-backed African Union military intervention in Mali. More than 500 people have been picked up in the current crackdown.   Photo: Edgar Mwakaba/IRIN The spread of militancy There is ample evidence of Senegalese recruitment to various jihadist causes. Senegalese are among IS forces in Libya; a small group of Wolof speakers (an almost exclusively Senegalese language) were believed to have fought alongside Islamist militants in northern Mali; men speaking Wolof were among the kidnappers of Canadian diplomat Robert Fowler in Niger in 2008; young militants from the large Senegalese diaspora are believed to be with IS in Syria; and there have been periodic arrests of individuals, most recently four activists detained for alleged ties to Nigeria’s IS-linked Boko Haram.  But Senegal is also a traditionally tolerant and democratic society. Although 90-percent Muslim, for the first 20 years of independence it was ruled by a still well-regarded Catholic president, Léopold Senghor. Four popular and powerful Sufi brotherhoods dominate religious practice. The brotherhoods have been described as the gatekeepers between the people and the state, conferring legitimacy on the latter. Salafism, a more cons[...]

AQIM incident map

Fri, 15 Jan 2016 00:00:00 +0000

This is a quick map of conflict events attributed to AQIM from 2007-2015, compiled from the ACLED dataset. Search by location, click a dot for event details.

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(image) Millet preparation in Bandiagara, Mopti Region of Mali. The crop has been hit by a succession of poor harvests. Ben Parker Maps and Graphics Conflict Human Rights LONDON IRIN Africa West Africa Burkina Faso Chad Mali Mauritania Niger Senegal Libya Algeria

The long way round: Syrians through the Sahel

Mon, 09 Nov 2015 00:00:00 +0000

As other options narrow, a small but growing number of Syrians are attempting a new and circuitous route to Europe: flying more than 3,000 miles to Mauritania in West Africa and then travelling overland with smugglers on the ancient salt roads from Mali through the Sahara.

See full report

102199 (image) Syrians through the Sahel Analysis Migration The long way round Katarina Höije IRIN GAO Mali Mauritania Syria West Africa

Food aid cut to Malian refugees in Mauritania*

Wed, 08 Jul 2015 23:00:00 +0000

Nearly 50,000 Malian refugees are at risk following the suspension of food aid to their camp in southeastern Mauritania, with NGOs warning of a significant increase in acute malnutrition, particularly among children under five, and pregnant and lactating women. See: Thousands flee violent upsurge in northern Mali The World Food Programme (WFP), which supplies the majority of the camp’s food aid, including rice, vegetables, oil, sugar and salt, says it has insufficient funds to continue operations. WFP already cut supplies in June, reducing rice rations by more than half, from 12 kilograms per person to 5.4 kilograms. Some refugees at M’Berra have started raising livestock and others have set up small businesses selling soap and other goods, but most rely on outside aid, including food rations, for their survival. “Refugees have tried to grow [produce] in communal gardens, but extreme heat, sandstorms and insects destroy most of the plantations,” said Maya Walet Mohamed, head of the women’s committee at the camp. Moulay* (last name withheld), a Malian refugee and one of a dozen or so butchers and animal dealers in the camp, has started accepting good-faith loans because of the dire food situation. “I often accept credit for cows and camels, and then I’m repaid after their resale," he told IRIN. “But during hard times, like now, I pay the difference in credit (between sale and resale) out of my own pocket.” Due to the combination of a recent drought and the food suspension, people no longer have livestock or goods to trade or resell to buy meat, Moulay said. “Sometimes they come with personal possessions to convince me to sell them one or two kilos of meat, such as shoes, more or less new, or even a TV antenna,” he told IRIN. Malnutrition It is too soon to say what impact this latest suspension will have, but when food distribution was stopped in March, Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) saw a “clear increase” in the number of sick children in its nutritional programmes at M’Berra. Before the cancellation, an average of 30 kids were admitted per month. After the suspension, the number jumped to 79. “Any further stop in regular rations could degrade the health status of the camp,” said Mohamed Gbane, MSF’s medical coordinator for Mauritania. Gbane explained that malnutrition “opens the door” to other illnesses such as respiratory infections and diarrhoea. “Safeguarding the health of refugees depends on a package of humanitarian aid, including, crucially, a balanced diet,” the doctor said. “Diseases in the camp have been relatively stable, but there is still currently a decrease in the level of nutritional health, which coincides with the ceasing of the distribution of food rations.” Our livestock is dying [due to drought] and our children are increasingly ill. If nothing is done shortly, this cocktail can cause disastrous consequences in terms of health. When MSF began operations in the camp in 2012, acute malnutrition for children under five was around 20 percent. Thanks to cooperation with WFP and other partners, the rate fell to nine percent by the first half of 2014. “It would be a tragic if we let the most vulnerable return to catastrophic levels,” Gbane said.  The timing of the interruption of food supplies is particularly bad as it coincides with the region’s lean season, when stocks of the staple crops are already low. “The lean period is extremely difficult this year,” camp coordinator Mohamed Ag Melah told IRIN. “Our livestock is dying [due to drought] and our children are increasingly ill. If nothing is done shortly, this cocktail can cause disastrous consequences in terms of health.” He urged donors to take responsibility. “With the ration crisis, our family of eight, which includes four children, has not been able to nourish itself correctly,” 25-year-old S[...]

Photo feature: Mali refugees find common ground in a foreign market

Tue, 09 Jun 2015 23:00:00 +0000

More than 50,000 Malians have taken refuge across the border at the M'berra camp in southeastern Mauritania since fighting broke out in northern Mali in 2012. 

Despite long-standing tensions between many of the different ethnic groups in Mali's North, people are coming together at a local weekly market. 

 Click here to see IRIN's photo feature on how the refugees are not only exchanging goods and services with each other and the surrounding communities, but also languages and culture.


101615 (image) 201506101317090971.jpg Feature Migration Conflict Foreign market unites Malian refugees Mamoudou Lamine Kane IRIN NOUAKCHOTT Mauritania

Food worries widen in Mauritania

Mon, 25 May 2015 23:00:00 +0000

Hundreds of thousands of Mauritanians are struggling to feed themselves as they fall victim to the effects of climate change. A chronically hungry country, Mauritania could see the availability of food drop to its lowest level in years if drought continues to ravage crops, livestock and livelihoods. An estimated 1.3 million people will face food insecurity this year, according to the latest assessment by the UN-backed Integrated Food Security Phase Classification (IPC).  Among them, nearly half a million people are expected to fall into severe food insecurity by June and be “unable to meet their food needs without external assistance." Around 21,000 will suffer extreme food insecurity, or a near complete depletion of their livelihoods.  “Mauritania is a country which is affected by climate change, as well as recurrent climate-related shocks, like the drought,” said Janne Suvanto, the World Food Programme’s (WFP) country director in Mauritania. “In recent years there have been successive shocks that have seriously affected the food and nutrition security of the country, and this has particularly undermined the resilience capacity of the most vulnerable populations.” Many families still have not recovered from the 2012 drought, which left more than 800,000 people in need of humanitarian assistance.  Suvanto told IRIN that recent assessments show that the food security situation has gradually worsened in Mauritania since mid-2013 and that it is now at the same levels as during the 2012 drought.  Not enough water Mauritania, which is about 75 percent Saharan desert and 25 percent Sahel, normally sees an average annual rainfall of less than 100 millimetres per year, according to the FAO.  In recent years, locals say the rains have become even less frequent and more erratic.  Due to poor soil and agricultural conditions, many people rely on pastoralism and animal husbandry for their livelihoods.  “These last few years, have been more and more difficult,” said Hussein Ould Imijen, who has already lost 10 animals this year due to hunger and thirst. It is a devastating loss, as like most people in the community, Imijen’s ability to feed his family depends on the sale of his livestock.  In Taboit town, local resident Zeinabou Mint Mamadou Ould Neji told IRIN: "Low rainfall in recent years has not helped restore groundwater.” She said the water levels in the wells are barely enough to cover drinking and cooking needs, never mind watering crops or gardens.  Even in towns, such as Azgueiloum in Gorgol, in southern Mauritania, which is located along the Senegal River, water is scarce.  “We have some beans and corn this year, but early drought this year has cost us dearly,” said Aminetou Mint Abeid, who is part of a women’s gardening association in Nabaam. “The assistance of international NGOs has allowed us to be a little more independent and meet our needs, but in hard times it isn’t [enough].” Souleymane Sarr, who works for Oxfam, which has been working to improve access to water in Gorgol, agreed. "Water is central to all these areas,” he told IRIN. “You can’t help them achieve anything without the assurance of the sustainable access to water.” Not enough food Dry-cereal harvests last year, such as millet, sorghum and rice, were 38 percent lower than the average of the last five years due to poor rainfall, which, according to WFP’s Suvanto, is “quite a significant figure” and will make this year’s lean season even more difficult than usual.  Many families have begun to cut down on the number of meals they eat each day as well as the quality of the food.  Many people have begun selling off assets to afford staple foods. Nearly 140,000 children under the age of five and pregnant or lactating mothers are now affected by acute maln[...]