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Africa

Lake Chad’s displaced threatened by looming US budget cuts to food aid

media Displaced Chadians divide the monthly food rations given to them by WFP at Bibi village, Lake Chad Basin LA Bagnetto

At Bibi village, home to internally displaced Chadians who fled Islamist militants Boko Haram, people are gathered near a large truck, where men offload boxes and sacks of food. Inhabitants of the straw-hut village near the shore of Lake Chad are picking up their monthly food rations from the World Food Programme (WFP). But a large part of the food aid for these people could be thrown into jeopardy if proposed US budget cuts are carried out.

The Chadian Red Cross (CRC) manages food distribution for some 4,400 people at Bibi village. "We have distributions for groups of 10 to make the task easier and not take up a lot of time," says Abdallah Mbaye, CRC distribution supervisor.

"People queue up for a long time, and they’re impatient," he adds, pointing out the large group lined up in front of him.

Displaced Chadians wait to have their rations weighed at Bibi village, Lake Chad Basin LA Bagnetto

Each person in line represents a family and they collect the rations their behalf. The displaced Chadians form the groups among themselves, so that it is easier to divide the food between people they know, says Mbaye.

The system is a complex one-- it takes two whole days just to distribute the array of sorghum, yellow peas, palm oil and a special corn flour enriched with sugar and vitamins, says Alfred Dihotibaye, senior programme assistant at WFP.

Pregnant mothers and the malnourished are given special priority. According to UN figures, Chad has one of the highest rates of infant mortality in the world—860 babies die out of every 100,000 born.

"This month, 182 babies will be getting this special formula. The most at risk get Super Cereal Plus," says Dihotibaye. Babies between six and 23 months are frequently monitored by WFP nutritionists and given the nutrient-rich diet to prevent malnutrition.

Everything is measured precisely on scales during distribution, and everyone gets the same amount of food, no matter where they are in Lake Chad. WFP has determined that each person gets 350 grams of cereals per day, which this month is sorghum.

Lakelo, an internally displaced woman from Bulare, Chad, finds it hard to stretch the food rations a whole month LA Bagnetto

Families try to stretch the rations throughout the month, which is not an easy task, says Lakelo, a mother of six.

"I prepare the food and the sauce, but we have some difficulties," she says. "On the good days we eat twice a day, but on the difficult days, we only eat once a day," she says. For her family, the difficult days start around the 15th or the 20th of the month.

US budget cuts would hit hard

Recent reports indicate that the US will be slashing their aid to the UN. The possible budget cuts by the Trump administration would have a big impact on Lakelo and other vulnerable people like her, who would be directly affected by decisions made more than 9,000 kilometres away.

The US contributes 1.8 billion euros to WFP each year, money that goes to helping 22,000 children in the Lake Chad region who suffer from malnutrition, and 300,000 people in the region who are food insecure. This includes not only Chadians at Bibi, but also Nigerian refugees who fled to Chad escaping Boko Haram attacks.

"American funding is very important - they are the top donor in Chad," says Florent Méhaule, head of office at the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) in Chad. In 2016, the US gave 125 million euros to Chad, one of the most chronically underdeveloped countries in the world, where instability in the region has compounded the challenges people face.

"The Lake Chad region is very fragile; it is severely food insecure", says Méhaule. "If these people do not receive proper assistance at the right time, during the lean season from June to September…then we just restart a vicious cycle that would carry us all the way to 2018."

And this is also dependent on no further deterioration of the security situation. These displaced people were forced from their homes when Boko Haram militants began targeting Chad in February 2015. The hardliners continue to threaten Chadian security. Regional military forces remain in place and maintain a curfew on the area.

For now, the future is uncertain for UN programmes in the Lake Chad basin in their current form. Potential US budget cuts could further harm funding, which at the moment only provides 60 per cent of what is needed, says Méhaule.

Former US South Carolina Governor David Beasley has been appointed as the head of the World Food Programme. UN officials reportedly hope that this move will prevent cuts that would have a considerable impact on vulnerable people not only in Lake Chad, but around the world.

Ndi Abukabir, 12, a displaced child living in Bibi village, Chad, waiting for his mother at the WFP food distribution LA Bagnetto

Meanwhile, the food distribution in Bibi village continues; a number of children are standing on the sidelines, waiting for their families to divide the rations.

Twelve-year-old Ndi Abukabir, who has lived at Bibi village for nearly a year, says he looks forward to the food allocation. "Here we often feel hungry. The day we get the food rations we eat well and on other days, until the food is gone. And on those days, it’s difficult to live."

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