With the food crisis in the Sahel region growing more acute, children are at the greatest risk. Families say they have cut back on meals.  © Alisha Rodriquez/Counterpart International.

By Alisha Rodriquez, Senior Program Development Officer

It’s easy to see the fear in parents’ eyes when they talk about their children’s health during the current drought and food crisis in Mauritania.

Smiling, giggling babies seem deceptively healthy until you notice the lack of characteristic chubbiness of infancy. Skinny arms and legs suggest an underlying problem.

In the four regions of Mauritania where Counterpart International operates its Community Action for Nutrition and Livelihoods program, Community Health Workers have been screening children younger than 5 for malnutrition.

The results are alarming, with all four communities suffering from significant declines since December and reaching severe or even critical levels of 12 to 20 percent acute malnutrition. Food shortages have grown worse and worse over the last several months, and the persistent absence of rain continues to delay the growth of crops that will bring relief.

Families say they began reducing consumption months ago, eating smaller meals or cutting out a meal altogether. Counterpart provides lifesaving rations of bulgur, lentils, vegetable oil and a nutritionally fortified corn-soy product for small children and pregnant women, the groups most at risk of malnutrition. Even these rations are not enough: As whole families struggle to put food on the table, everyone in the household shares because the entire household is starving.

Parents say they fear for the health and safety of their children. Many have said that Counterpart’s work to teach better hygiene and sanitation practices and increase knowledge about nutrition and child health have made a noticeable impact on their children’s well-being. But, as the food crisis becomes more and more acute, they see their children’s health backsliding into alarming levels of malnutrition. And they see no relief in sight.

The international community and the government of Mauritania have been able to cover little more than half of the country’s food needs. Counterpart is working alongside agencies like UNICEF and the UN World Food Programme, as well as the government of Mauritania, to meet needs with limited resources. As you look at the bodies of the children we are trying to help, and the worry in their parents’ eyes, it is clear that what we have is not enough.