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Food crisis looms in west Africa

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Woman with a bowl of seed in drought stricken field

© Julien Goldstein/IFRC

The Red Cross is carrying out assessments in the Sahel region of west Africa where millions of people are at risk of a food crisis this year. 

Low and erratic rainfall and insect infestations have led to poor harvests and lack of pasture in parts of Niger, Chad, Mali, Mauritania, Senegal and Burkina Faso. Communities are also dealing with high food prices and reduced cash flow from migrant workers sending money back to their families from Libya and the Ivory Coast.

Unless urgent measures are taken now, the Sahel region could experience a major food crisis.

Red Cross response in west Africa

The International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies has already released over £500,000 to help 70,000 people, in advance of the full assessments of the affected countries.

In Mauritania, where assessments have already been completed, the Red Cross plans to help over 10,000 households for the next year. The programme will include: emergency relief distributions; water and sanitation; and activities to reduce future risks, through more resilient livelihoods.

During recent assessments in Mauritania, the Red Cross found the lack of rain had seriously affected people’s ability to grow crops. As a result, in rural villages, such as Tchout, all the men and some women have moved to towns in search of work.

In Tchout, the Red Cross team found two in twelve children were already malnourished. The money and food sent home by those who have left to work elsewhere does not go far.

Halima, a 32-year-old mother of four boys, said: “Eight months ago, my husband went to the capital to work as a laborer. But since then he’s only been able to send me 25kg of rice and 5kg of oil.”

Food shortages in Mauritania

Malnourished child having his arm measured

© Nathalie Bonvin/IFRC

Another village, Tenwakoudeil, is in a similar situation where agricultural production is non-existent and farmers are struggling to feed their animals. To survive, they have started selling them at lower prices and many men have gone to Nouadhibou, a coastal city, to fish.

Access to safe water and sanitation is also a major problem here. The only source of water for the village is a well 30 metres deep, which serves both people and animals.

In Tenwakoudeil, women’s weaving co-operatives and small-scale trading are practically the only economic activities that allow families to survive.

Slow response to east Africa food crisis

A recent report by Oxfam and Save the Children says tens of thousands of people have died unnecessarily during the current food crisis in east Africa because the international community, donor governments and humanitarian agencies didn’t respond quickly enough.

Clearly, we need to avoid such a situation in west Africa where once again the international community can see a crisis looming. In order to avert it, funds are needed now to help communities become more resilient before the crisis hits.

During 2004-2005, people in the Sahel faced a particularly severe drought, to which the British Red Cross responded by launching an emergency appeal. However, as the UN calculated at the time, $1 could have been spent to prevent a child becoming malnourished, whereas it cost $80 a day to treat a malnourished child.

The emergency response was necessary to save lives, but as always more could have been saved by acting earlier. Last year, the Red Cross acknowleged a similar situation when it published a report on the east Africa food crisis focussing on the need to support longer term food security to avoid future food crises.

Building resilience to food crises

In the village of Roti, this is exactly what the Mauritanian Red Crescent is doing, with support from other Red Cross and Red Crescent National Societies. Like many other villages in Mauritania, families here are struggling with the effects of poor rainfall: their crops are failing and they have no money to buy the products needed to sow expensive drought-resistant grain.

High demand and low availability of food are pushing up prices. Normally, a sack of wheat costs £10, but villagers are now paying £17 per sack.

However, unlike other villages, gardening activities are fairly well developed in Roti, where the Mauritanian Red Crescent is teaching people to grow food that is less dependent on abundant rains. The results are encouraging, with families producing crops of melons, cowpeas and millet for home consumption and trading.

A responsibility to respond

The International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies will be supporting the Mauritanian Red Crescent in addressing the looming food crisis by setting up a mobile unit to help with early detection and treatment of malnutrition. Over the coming year it also plans to address the root causes and reduce the risk of future food crises through a number of initiatives, which include:

  •  providing grants to communities for livelihoods projects
  • establishing community irrigated gardens with water system and solar panels
  • raising awareness of famine early warning systems to help people have a better understanding of what and when to plant.

The British Red Cross don’t know yet whether it will launch an emergency appeal to respond to the food situation in west Africa, but what we do know is the more prepared we are to respond quickly the more lives we can save.

The British Red Cross’ Disaster Fund is a facility designed to rapidly allocate funds to disasters irrespective of whether they have a high media profile or not. So far, we’ve used our Disaster Fund to contribute £1 million to the Red Cross response in east Africa, which includes much of the early allocations of funding before the crisis was widely reported.

Early action in west Africa, before the crisis potentially peaks in the summer, will make a huge difference. If you would like to help us be better prepared for this and other future disasters please consider making a contribution today.

South Africa: caring for orphans affected by HIV

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Four young children eating breakfast

© Ziv Koren/BRC

In Patricia Miya’s house, four young children sit on the floor eating their breakfast and two others have already been packed off to school.

It is an everyday family scene maybe not so different from yours, apart from the lack of furniture. That is until you find out all six children are orphans. They are Patricia’s grandchildren and she’s been looking after them since their parents died of HIV-related illnesses.

For Patricia her worries for the future of her grandchildren have been made worse as two have already been diagnosed with HIV and two with TB. Unfortunately, this story is all too common in South Africa’s KwaZulu-Natal province, where one in seven people aged two and over are living with HIV* .

Treatment for HIV and TB

Patricia and her six grandchildren might live in a village of mud huts, but one of the quirks of globalisation means no matter how poor you are, the chances are you will still have a mobile phone. At 7 am, Patricia’s mobile alarm goes off – although she has already been up for a couple of hours.

Young boy being given medicine

© Ziv Koren/BRC

However, the alarm is a reminder to give Nduduzo, four, and Ntokozo, two, their anti-retroviral treatment. Later, she gives Onele, four, and Thandokazi, one, their TB treatment. Although life for Patricia is tough, she does not complain. Rather she is thankful for the support she receives from friends in her community, including the Red Cross volunteers.

“I can’t even count how many times the volunteers come to visit because they are always coming to visit me,” she says. “I’m very happy for their help as they even taught me how to take care of the kids, demonstrating how to give the pills when they first started taking their treatment for HIV and TB. They supported me until I knew what to do.”

Dedicated volunteers provide lifeline

Across KwaZulu-Natal, the Red Cross has 1,300 dedicated volunteers who provide a lifeline to people in their community. They help out in the home and give advice on nutrition and establishing food gardens which can also help generate income.

Some people, like Patricia, are unable to read and write and have no idea how to access social welfare support – so this is also something the volunteers help with.

“Even the government grant I have is because of the Red Cross, as I didn’t know where to start applying for it,” Patricia says. “They also help me collect the children’s medication and bring us a large food parcel every few months.”

HIV pandemic

Every day in South Africa, Red Cross volunteers are helping thousands of people who face enormous challenges from the effect of the HIV pandemic. It’s not just those living with the disease who struggle, but also the family members who look after them and the children who are left behind when parents die.
“It was hard at first, having so many young children to care for on my own, but now I’m used to it,” Patricia says.

Patricia is 56 years old and with life expectancy for women in South Africa being 55 years**,  she is not being dramatic when she says: “I’m worried about when I die who will take care of the young ones.”

Red Cross support

Visit our website and find out more about how the Red Cross is:

  • reducing stigma and discrimination
  • preventing further HIV and TB infections
  • expanding and improving the quality of our care, treatment and support for people living with HIV.

*South African National HIV survey 2008

**World Health Organisation

Lesotho: keyhole gardens equal hope

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Keyhole-garden

© Sarah Oughton/BRC

As climate change, food crises and the HIV pandemic continue to hit hard in Africa, Lesotho has found one small but successful solution to some of its big problems – keyhole gardens.

Lesotho is a southern African country barely the size of Belgium, where food and HIV are inextricably linked. Its economy, which is heavily reliant on agriculture, faces many challenges – including severe droughts, a short growing season, and soil stripped of nutrients by intensive agricultural practices.

With a population of just 2.2 million, Lesotho also struggles with one of the world’s highest rates of HIV, at 23.6 per cent, compounding its challenge to grow food, with its workforce severely weakened.

Diane Moody, British Red Cross programme manager, explains: “The HIV pandemic is linked with chronic food shortages and for households affected by HIV it can be a vicious circle. It is essential for people to have access to healthy food when taking the life-saving anti-retroviral drugs, but it also becomes increasingly difficult for them to grow their own food or afford to buy it.”

Struggling to eat

Majoele gardening

© Sarah Oughton/BRC

For families affected by HIV and struggling to get food, the obstacles can seem overwhelming. However over the last few years, organisations in Lesotho, including the Lesotho Red Cross, have pioneered a new approach to help people grow enough food.

Majoele Nkobloane, 66, from Macha-feela village was diagnosed with HIV in 2007. She says: “We used to have to travel long distances to find vegetables and sometimes the herd boys would beat us. It was difficult because of taking the medication and not having enough food, which made me vomit.

“But in 2010, the Red Cross started teaching us about keyhole gardens. I’ve learned about manure, compost and other techniques, which help us grow lots of spinach and other vegetables. Now my weight and health has improved.”

Keyhole gardens

Majoele laughing with Red Cross worker

© Sarah Oughton/BRC

Keyhole gardens – so-called because of their shape from above – are a great way for people to grow their own food, especially for those who don’t have access to a large plot of land or the energy to maintain it.

The gardens are built to waist height and arm span – making it easy for people to tend them and grow nutritious, healthy food almost all year round.

The Red Cross trains ‘lead gardeners’ in each community to share knowledge on how to make the gardens as productive as possible. It also teaches methods of food preservation to help sustain people between harvests. Excess food can be sold at market, helping families gain a small income.

Orphans and vulnerable children

Children making hero books

© Sarah Oughton/BRC

Majoele says: “The Red Cross has made a huge difference, especially for the orphans who sometimes go without food for some days.”

Nomayeza Rabatho, Lesotho Red Cross orphans and vulnerable children officer, says: “As well as practical support we are trying to address children’s emotional pain. Some children aged nine are already the head of a household and they have a big burden to bear.

“We encourage children to make their own ‘hero book’, where they can write their story. If the children aren’t ready to talk, writing or drawing about things can be a good start.”

Ambassador of hope

Condom demonstration

© Sarah Oughton/BRC

Mabonang Sethathi, 48, who is living with HIV, also recognises the importance of emotional support for adults, especially when tackling the stigma associated with the disease.

A few years ago, a Red Cross worker who visited Mabonang regularly to ensure she took her medication recommended her for a new Red Cross role as an ‘ambassador of hope’.

Mabonang says: “At first I thought: who me? And then I thought: why not give it a go. Now I inform people about how to prevent HIV and the importance of getting tested. We use role plays and songs to get the message across.

“I cannot stop smiling. I am in good health and living my dream of helping people. Yes, I used to face stigma and some people would call me names. But now I do not care. I am proud of my status and want to ensure people who have HIV are not discriminated against.”

What the Red Cross is doing in Lesotho

Young girl at Red Cross centre

© Sarah Oughton/BRC

Lesotho has around 270,000 people living with HIV, including 28,000 children. The disease has also left around 130,000 children orphaned (UNAIDS 2009).

The British Red Cross supports the Lesotho Red Cross:

  • helping 2,400 people living with HIV
  • supporting 2,800 orphans and vulnerable children
  • reaching 80,000 people with information about how to prevent HIV.

More about our work in Lesotho

Red Cross report: dependence on food aid in east Africa has to stop

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Kenyan mother holding baby

© Olav Saltbones/IFRC

A report on the east Africa food crisis, recently published by the Red Cross, looks at the roots of the issue and proposes ways to avert future drought crises.

It says: “The answer lies not in emergency aid but in support for food security.”

This doesn’t mean the food aid provided in east Africa hasn’t been necessary. It has had an immediate positive effect and as a result some areas in Somalia are no longer in famine. However, the Red Cross, like other agencies working in the region, is well aware that food aid is not a long-term solution. If we want to ensure the situation doesn’t continue we have to invest in a long-term strategy.

This means humanitarian aid and development need to work hand in hand. Today, millions of people are facing a food crisis and more money is desperately needed to save lives.

The current situation

Recently, there have been above average rainfalls, pastures are growing again and aid efforts are paying off. However, in south central Somalia many are still on the brink of starvation.

Karen Peachey, British Red Cross regional representative based in east Africa, said: “In many areas the situation is improving but the crisis is not over.

“People are moving their animal stocks back home and milk yields are going up as the animals are better fed. Ground water supplies are also being replenished. But it will still be several months before the next harvest so it won’t be till March, June or July in some places before things are much better.

“The question is, given we know the issue will happen again, what do we want to do? Yes it was a bad season, worse than usual, but the drought was not a freak crisis – it’s a recurring issue. And it was the intersection of the drought with conflict that caused the famine in Somalia, not the drought on its own.”

A reason to hope

Hands holding tomatoes

© Ken Oloo/IFRC

Last August, while thousands of people across north-east Kenya were suffering from the food crisis, for families involved in a Kenya Red Cross Society sustainable livelihoods project, it was a different story, as described by the Red Cross report:

“The sound of a truck causes heads to turn in a poor nomadic camp of a few round huts in a disregarded corner of Tana River. Bouncing down the track in a cloud of dust comes a pick-up. The cloud engulfs the camp, pastoralists cover their faces but through the murk follow the truck intently. A question is being pondered. Our way of life may be ending but could another be opening up?

“The camp dwellers belong to the 77 per cent of Tana North district’s population who live below the poverty line and, like more than half of those, cannot provide their basic needs. They have a chronic reliance on food aid.

“The truck belongs to a group of flourishing farmers – most of them former pastoralists – who have found new hope with a Kenya Red Cross Society project. Despite the deepening drought in which the poor get only poorer, it is on its way to market piled high with plump bananas.”

In a concerted effort to address long-term issues of food insecurity, the Tana River drought recovery project has turned life around for once destitute farmers in one of Kenya’s poorest areas.

Where all around them people were surviving on food aid, families involved in this project were harvesting banana, mango, capsicum, cowpeas, mung beans, water melon, tomatoes and pawpaw, and maintaining livestock.

Farmer Aden Shekh put it this way: “As a farmer I can send my children to school, and we do not go hungry during drought such as we have today.”

Read the report to find out more about the Kenya Red Cross project.

Food crisis facts and figures

  • Drought in east Africa has affected over 13 million people, including 3.75 million Kenyans.
  • The World Food Programme is currently able to assist only 7.4 million people.
  • Around one in three Somalis has been displaced due to the drought.
  • One in three children in southern Somalia is malnourished.
  • Over $1bn (US) has been committed to respond to the emergency.
  • A further $1bn is still needed to save thousands of lives.
  • In the Dollo Ado refugee camps in Ethiopia, 50 per cent of children under five years old are acutely malnourished.
  • According to the UN, unless operations are increased, 750,000 people are at risk of death in the next four months.
  • The food aid coming to Somalia can only meet about 10 per cent of the country’s needs.

Find out how the British Red Cross is responding to the food crisis.

Please support the British Red Cross East Africa Food Crisis Appeal and make a donation today.

We need to talk: good communications help Haiti recover

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Aid worker with kids in HaitiToday, AlertNet reported on the need for agencies to communicate better with people affected by disasters, and they’re right, which is why the Red Cross made it such a priority after the earthquake which devastated Haiti on 12 January 2010.

Talking to people after a disaster to find out their needs and provide them with vital information, such as how to protect their health, is hardly a new concept. However, the manner in which it is done and the emphasis on its importance has evolved hugely since the Asian tsunami – which, like Haiti, was a disaster where the scale of needs was overwhelming.

Just days after the Haiti disaster struck, the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies embedded a dedicated ‘beneficiary communications delegate’ into the emergency operation, which was a first for the Red Cross. In July 2010, the British Red Cross also recruited its first delegate dedicated to beneficiary communications, Mandy George, to work in Haiti.

Life-saving information

Mandy says: “My work is about empowering people in their recovery. We use a range of ways to communicate, from walking around and meeting people face-to-face, to more high-tech methods such as using SMS text messaging to provide life-saving information to tens of thousands of people in one hit.”

In Haiti, the British Red Cross is helping people with livelihoods, shelter, and water and sanitation. Good communication channels with beneficiaries are vital to the successful implementation of every aspect of the programme.

Getting the message across

Haiti-info-poster on side of tentDelmas 19 is one area in the capital where the British Red Cross is working and using posters to communicate key stages in its programme. The posters were initially text-heavy but have been replaced by pictorial representations to cater to the illiterate community.

However images are also culturally sensitive and can be misconceived. So young community members were asked to join workshops and design the posters to ensure they would be understood by the local community.

To cater to a diverse population with different ways of absorbing information, messages are conveyed in many different ways, including song, dance and even a Red Cross phone-in radio programme.

Free-phone hotline

“Our communications strategy now is as much about listening as it is about giving out information,” says Mandy. “Over the last 18 months, we’ve increased the focus on two-way communications, ensuring Haitians have a say in and can shape their own recovery process.”

The British Red Cross also set up a free-phone hotline to allow people to ask questions and make complaints.

“Not everyone in Delmas 19 has used the phone hotline,” says Mandy. “But everyone asked feels better just knowing it is there. Having access to information is comforting and empowering.”

Find out more about how we’re helping in Haiti on our website.

Read Etienne’s story: I had to begin from Zero

Red Cross Christmas photo competition – win a first aid kit!

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To celebrate the holiday season and the launch of our free first aid mobile app, we’re giving away three single-person first aid kits in a Christmas photo competition.

How to enter
To be in with a chance of winning, send us a seasonal photograph that involves the Red Cross* – for example:

  • The Christmas decorations in your local British Red Cross shop
  • A festive Red Cross event
  • Red Cross volunteers (if you can catch them) working in the snow.

Face to face with HIV

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In many South African communities, HIV still carries a significant stigma, and young people still have misconceptions about how to prevent infection.

We support the South African Red Cross’ programme in KwaZulu-Natal to dispel stigma, prevent HIV, promote awareness and life skills, help people access HIV testing and treatment, and provide community care and support for individuals, children and families living with HIV.

With support from Canon, photojournalist Ziv Koren was able to accompany the British Red Cross on a recent trip to KwaZulu-Natal. These photos offer a brief glimpse into the lives of the people we are helping.

View the photos on Flickr

Read more about the Red Cross’ work in South Africa

The lessons of Sidr: easily learned and easily shared

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Two sisters stand in front of their makeshift home after Cyclone Sidr

© Amirul Rajiv/ Red Cross

Four years ago today, Cyclone Sidr struck Bangladesh. It claimed over 3,300 lives and injured more than 34,500 people. The government released warnings the day before, and the Bangladesh Red Crescent worked to evacuate people before the cyclone hit. Around 5,000 community volunteers trained by the organisation worked through the night to alert people using megaphones and hand sirens.

The British Red Cross has been working with communities in Bangladesh for many years to improve their levels of preparation for cyclones. More lives certainly would have been lost if communities had been less prepared – a cyclone the same strength as Sidr in 1991 killed 140,000 people.

We continue to work with the Bangladesh Red Crescent to reach vulnerable groups and communities. This helps ensure that, in future disasters, still more lives can be saved.

Safety at sea

Abu hanif with his son

© BRC/ Sarah Oughton

A group particularly vulnerable to cyclones are fishermen. Many fishermen died during Sidr, often leaving their families with little source of income. We have given 300 fishermen information on how to prepare for cyclones. They are all from different boats, ensuring that their knowledge will be shared and used widely.

Abu Hanif, a fisherman, says: “I learned so many things from the Bangladesh Red Crescent Society training. In the middle of the sea we can now get warning of cyclones via the radio. I know that after signal number three I have to stop fishing and come back to shore. I was given a buoy and rope, and taught how to throw it to rescue someone. I also learned first aid and am more confident about how to help injured people.”

Empowered women

Suchitra Rani teaching cyclone preparedness to other women

© BRC/ Sarah Oughton

During cyclone Sidr, hundreds of women and children died simply because the men weren’t at home to give the permission to leave the house and seek safety in a cyclone shelter. We have since been working to empower women, educate them and train them in skills such as first aid, and search and rescue. Women are also given ‘preparing for cyclones’ flip charts, enabling to share their knowledge.

Simple changes, such as tying back hair or changing from wearing a sari to baggy trousers, can help make it easier to escape a cyclone unharmed. Women are taught to bury documents, money, dried food and drinking water in a bucket attached with a rope to an empty plastic bottle. This enables them to find their basic essentials and start recovering after the cyclone passes.

Working with influential religious leaders, we have helped reduce the stigma of women being seen alone in public. Suchitra Rani, a member of a Red Crescent women’s forum, says: “As a woman, it used to be difficult to go outside on my own. I would get criticised. But since the Red Crescent has been working with us it’s become more acceptable.”

Less lives lost

Fishermen are very vulnerable to cyclones

© BRC/ Sarah Oughton

In 2009, Cyclone Alia once again brought destruction to Bangladesh. But this time, people in Suchitra’s community were prepared. Suchitra says: “In our community lots of people lost their lives in Sidr, but in Aila only one died.”

It is almost certain that Bangladesh will again experience cyclones. While we can do nothing to stop these natural disasters, we can lessen the suffering and destruction they cause. By spreading simple, live-saving knowledge to people who need it most, the British Red Cross and the Bangladesh Red Crescent help people survive the storm and rebuild their lives afterwards.

Read more about how we help people prepare for disasters

Donate to our disaster fund