UNICEF is warning that more than 400,000 children in central Congo’s troubled Kasai region are severely malnourished and could die within months without emergency help.
The crisis is unfolding in a vast region of a central African country already plagued by poverty and conflict. An 18-month period of violence, displacement and abandoned farms has severely impacted the region’s young, the UN’s children fund UNICEF said in a Tuesday statement from Kinshasa, the capital.
The 400,000 children under the age of 5 that the UN children’s group identified are among the neediest of more than 750,000 youngsters who are malnourished, it said, explaining that acute problems remain even as the security situation in some parts is stabilizing and displaced populations were starting to return home.
“This nutrition crisis and food insecurity in the Kasai region follows the displacement of thousands of families who have been living for months in very harsh conditions,” said Tajudeen Oyewale, UNICEF’s acting representative in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. “The true scale of the problem is becoming clear as people are returning home in some areas where the security situation has improved and health services have started functioning again.”
Until recent years, the diamond-rich Kasai region had been deemed a relative haven, according to AFP, the French news agency. However, in 2016, a tribal chieftain known by the title Kamwina Nsapu rebelled against President Joseph Kabila’s regime in Kinshasa, leading to violent clashes.
According to the country’s Catholic Church, the clashes between local groups and government troops led to more than 3,300 deaths, including civilians caught in the crossfire. The UN said about 1.4 million people had fled their homes during the conflict.
Security in some parts of Kasai is improving, but food shortages will continue at least another six months as farmers in the region lost the 2017 planting season. “Families have little to harvest from their own land and nothing to sell at the markets,” UNICEF said in Tuesday’s statement.
Fighting has prevented farmers from working on their land for three seasons, British charity Oxfam reported last week. According to their research, donors have only provided “a fraction” of the sum required, meaning that its project there may have to close when its funding is expected to run out in March.
“Governments and international donors need to urgently plug the funding gap,” said Jose García Barahona, Oxfam’s country director for the Congo. He said Oxfam and the UN have already halved emergency food rations for thousands of people and many are existing on one meal a day of maize and cassava.
The UN has appealed for aid amounting to $1.7 billion for Congo in 2018. That is more than double the sum it called for last year, and only smaller than its appeals for Syria and Yemen.
“Guaranteeing access to basic health and nutrition services to returning populations is essential to help malnourished children survive and thrive,” said Oyewale, UNICEF’s representative.