Poor rains and rising rice prices have contributed to increasing malnutrition to alarming levels in at least three regions of Senegal. Following a rapid assessment in July 2008 by the UN and the Ministry of Health, the government has confirmed a malnutrition crisis in three of the five surveyed regions, with the most critical being Matam, where 17 percent of the children surveyed under five years old are malnourished.
Researchers surveyed Matam, Gossas, Guinguineo, Sedhiou and Goudomp, and concluded Matam, Guinguineo and Goudomp require immediate food assistance, while the other two regions require continued monitoring.
Youssouf Gaye, the head of the Food, Nutrition and Children division at the Ministry of Health, told IRIN Matam’s numbers are the most alarming of the five regions. Of the 670 children surveyed, 117 are malnourished.
Gaye said, similar to other parts of the country, Matam residents have had poor harvests and steep food price increases. The local purchase price of rice has increased 74 percent in the past two years, according to the Senegalese government. There is also less rice available; rice-exporting countries like Mali, Vietnam and Thailand have stopped exporting in order to feed their own people.
Poor rains have increased hunger levels across Senegal where agriculture is the main money maker for 85 percent of rural communities.
Gaye told IRIN Matam has high levels of malnutrition because of its higher number of immigrants, and how they choose to spend their money. “These immigrants do not take care of themselves. [Rather], they build homes, buy huge satellite dishes, and buy household appliances.”
But there are others among the region’s estimated 256,000 residents for whom malnutrition is not a choice.
Matam's rural villages bordering Mauritania have some of the country’s highest levels of poverty. The UN’s International Fund for Agricultural Development reports annual rainfall amounts in Matam falling by half within the past three decades, drying up rivers and cutting irrigation to water and cash-strapped farmers.
The nutrition director Gaye says the resulting malnutrition is stunting growth in children under five, which leaves them more vulnerable to illnesses. Gaye says long term, these children will have problems in schools. “Malnourished children cannot follow the curriculum like those who are well-fed.”
In the other surveyed regions, 10 percent were malnourished in Guinguineo, 13 percent in Goudomp, nine percent in Shediou and eight percent in Gossas.
Researchers are expected to assess four additional regions considered to be at high risk for malnutrition: Louga, Kebemer, Bakel, and Rufisque.
In 2001, UN member countries agreed to halve extreme poverty and hunger by the year 2015 in their adoption of Millennium Development Goals (MDG). In 2001, 23 percent of Senegal’s population suffered from malnutrition.
To meet its goal, Senegal would need to improve nutrition for one and a half million people, based on a Columbia University population estimate for Senegal in 2015.