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Fighting Malnutrition In The Sahel

 

Across the Sahel region, an estimated 10 million people are at risk of famine. Niger and Chad, two of the poorest countries in the world, have declared states of emergency. If this narrative sounds familiar, it’s because it unfortunately is. UNICEF estimates that 300,000 children under five die in the Sahel each year directly or indirectly from malnutrition, and the organization expects to treat 859,000 under-fives in the region this season for severe malnutrition. The last large scale famine in Niger in 2005 prompted authorities – both national and international – to declare: “never again.” In spite of stepped-up prevention efforts and quicker reaction times this time around, the international community and the governments of the Sahel region are once again unable to fully address the current food crisis.

The World Food Program (WFP) is facing funding shortfalls, which is disrupting the agency’s efforts to source food crops from the West African region. According to IRIN, the WFP is $22 million short of the $124 million it needs to purchase 113,000 mt of food for Niger. So far, the WFP has received 40,000mt of the 113,000mt needed for 2010, and expects to receive about 20,000mt in July and in August.  The UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs said just 57% of Niger’s $191 million emergency appeal had been covered. In Chad, the WFP is still 30% short of their $65 million appeal. Speaking to AFP, Chadian Agriculture Minister Albert Pahimi Padacke said “we estimate our needs at 100,000 tonnes of cereals. So far, we have received 55,000.

Analysts have also noted that the ongoing refugee crisis in eastern Chad has also contributed to the growing food crisis in other parts of the country, as humanitarian organizations and international agencies focus their attention (and funding) on other priorities. According to Reuters, the United Nations Central Emergency Response Fund (CERF) announced on Wednesday that an extra $14 million would be allocated for Niger. The European Union has also announced an additional $29 million for the Sahel. In an attempt to circumvent some of the logistical constraints of distributing food in remote locations in Niger, some organizations are also distributing cash and/or seeds in some communities.

In researching this post, it became apparent that media coverage of this food crisis is scarce. There is little in the way of analysis, and up to date information is difficult to obtain. Media attention should not be the gauge used evaluate the seriousness of a humanitarian crisis. Some commentators, however, have noted that it wasn’t until pictures of emaciated children appeared on TV screens across the world in 2005 that the international community stepped up its response to the devastating famine in Niger (a famine for which, incidentally, no official death toll has been established.) Speaking to Reuters, Bruno Jochum, operations director for MSF in Chad said that “for the world aid system to fully leap into action, it still needed to be confronted with “critical situations” such as the archetypal TV image of the starving child that this year may come from the Sahel“, adding that “it is still probably the trigger for many interventions.” 

The international community and governments of the Sahel region have been promising to address chronic malnutrition and to stymie the cycle of famines. Not only are these issues severely hampering these countries’ ability to achieve social, economic and political goals, but neglecting these crises highlights the urgent need to bring concrete actions on global food security in line with the promises made on that front.

 

photo credit: etrenard on Flickr

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Drogba and Zidane Team Up for the MDGs (Video)

A broken arm couldn’t keep soccer phenom Didier Drgoba from the pitch in Cote D’Ivoire’s opening match against Portugal. His injury also could also not keep him from teaming up with French football legend Zinadine Zidane in this Millennium Development Goals promo for the UN Development program. 

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Oil Spills Are a Grim Routine in the Niger Delta

The New York Times reminded us today that while the oil spill in the Gulf is an acute shock to Americans, oil spills have become a way of life in the Niger delta. The area has “has endured the equivalent of the Exxon Valdez spill every year for 50 years by some estimates. The oil pours out nearly every week, and some swamps are long since lifeless.” Much of the Niger delta is dead as a result.

Once, the Niger delta fed the entire coast. It was rich with shellfish, mollusks, and fish. Now, most of that is gone. Fisherman can no longer make a living, and children swim in oily swamps. Nearly 11 million gallons of oil a year have spilled into the delta’s wetlands; in comparison, the Exxon Valdez spilled 10.8 million gallons of oil.

According to The Independent in 2006, “7,000sq km of the continent’s remaining 9,000sq km of mangrove and scientists believe some 60 per cent of West Africa’s fish stocks breed in the rivers and swamps along the coast.” Think about that, and then consider that over 6,800 spills were recorded between 1976 and 2001.

It’s a gruesome lesson in the risks of unbridled oil exploration and weak government regulations. Amnesty International has a report on the Niger Delta, and they say that “Nigeria has laws and regulations that require companies to comply with internationally recognized standards of “good oil field practice”, and laws and regulations to protect the environment but these laws and regulations are poorly enforced. The government agencies responsible for enforcement are ineffective and, in some cases, compromised by conflicts of interest.” They go on to point out that oil exploration has brought little to no income to the delta region itself.

As existing oil wells age and run dry, we are going to need to drill in more and more ecologically sensitive places. The Niger delta and the Mississippi delta could just be the beginning. The world needs clean energy. As soon as humanly possible.

 

(photo credit: jen farr)

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Timothy Wirth, president of the UN Foundation, on energy development

In a speech delivered at the 21st Annual Energy Efficiency Forum, held at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C, Tim Wirth, president of the United Nations Foundation, exhorted policy-makers and legislators to tackle the question of clean energy with great urgency. Mr. Wirth’s remarks addressed this year’s Forum theme, “Energy Efficiency: Innovative Approaches, Proven Solutions.” He spoke of the necessity to address the U.S.’s clean energy needs with pragmatism: “my belief is that we have one more chance at this now. And that chance is enormously important,” said Wirth. He noted that we should be learning from recent disasters at the Massey mines in West Virginia, and of course the environmental catastrophy in the Gulf of Mexico: “we should have learned a huge lesson: we have reached beyond our technical capacity.”

Indeed, in his remarks, Wirth extolled the virtues of investing in and promoting those technologies which pose relatively less risk, thus diminishing the possibility of unintended consequences. He urged policy-makers to learn the lessons of our experiences, and to “look at the issue of energy development through the lens of risk.” Wirth discussed the three major pressures that should drive the discussion around energy development: (1) environmental challenges and climate change, (2) national security, and (3) economic rebuilding. Using these three frameworks, policy-makers should assess an acceptable level of risk – with corresponding insurances – that we are willing to take, collectively as a nation, to move forward with safe, clean and innovative energy development.

Wirth then highlighted the five points which he hopes will be central to any legislative product on energy, and which he believes “should dominate our thinking about what [these insurances] are.” Importantly, none of the five points he discussed touched on the controversial topic of carbon pricing. Even though Wirth pointed out that “ every bit of me believes that we need a carbon pricing system,” he noted that the discussion over cap and trade and carbon pricing had been “too sullied and too compromised.” Insisting on the urgent dimension of passing legislation on energy policy as quickly as possible, Wirth explained that energy legislation cannot get wound around the axle of carbon pricing: “we can’t afford [to go through a huge war on carbon pricing] , the political system cant handle it right now.” He encouraged legislators to look at the avenues where “we can do something right away.” Wirth added that “all of this can be done now, immediately. I don’t believe that Congress will be able to leave town without doing something about energy.”

Transitioning from coal, setting renewable energy standards, improving regulation, engaging the natural gas industry, and phasing-in energy efficiency standards – “these are all feasible”, Wirth said, adding that this will require real leadership from the White House. Below, the details of each of the five suggestions Wirth discussed during his remarks:

1. Transitioning from coal

Wirth reminded the audience that transitioning from coal is not, and should not, be about hurting the coal industry and ancillary businesses. Amendements to the Clean Air Act of 1990 stipulated that obsolete coal-fired power plants needed to be shut down, a clause which has yet to be fully enforced. These outdated plants need to be “phased out or shut down.” In addition, he mentioned that we cannot build anymore coal-fired power plants, because “we can’t afford to do so, we know the risk is too big.”

2. Stimulating technological innovation and clean energy sources

Setting renewable energy standards will “drive wind and solar right away,” Wirth said. He explained that this type of standard had been enacted successfully at the state level in 30 U.S. states, as well as in other countries. “We know that the most important and effective way of doing that [putting wind and solar out there] is to set renewable energy standards,” he noted. In addition to these standards, tax incentives provided over a long period of time, as well as a significant research & development package need to be put in place.

3. Strengthening the regulatory system

According to Wirth, “we ought to learn from the Gulf that this is the most important part of immediate public policy.” He added that “we depend upon the regulators and a sound, thoughtful regulatory structure to protect the public interest and protect public health.” He spoke of the importance of strengthening EPA, and not letting industry lobby groups drive a legislative process that seeks to pre-empt and circumvent the agency’s role. He explained that there is too much risk associated with letting this happen, mentioning that he felt “deeply doubtful that legislation can effectively replace what could be done at EPA.”
While tens of thousands of barrels of crude oil are gushing into the Gulf every day, Wirth’s remarks regarding the need for better regulation were underpinned by a strong sense of gravitas. He spoke of the sine qua non to “strengthen and use the regulatory regime”, to think about it differently, and to use this regime to achieve our goals.

4. Harnessing natural gas as a low-carbon transition fuel

“Natural gas is the transition fuel to a clean economy,” said Wirth. He enjoined policy-makers to very carefully examine the use of natural gas. “When Waxman-Markey was written”, he noted,  “we were just beginning to understand our own reserves of natural gas.” These reserves, in the forms of shales, exist around the world, and could constitute a major source of energy for the U.S., should policy-makers take a “series of steps that can and must be taken related to an understanding of natural gas.” We must do the very best we can to understand the implications of recovering gas from these untapped reserves, and fully consider the possibilities available to us. He added that, currently, the natural gas industry is not well-organized, and that it needs to be reinforced from the outside. It should not be seen or considered in opposition to wind and solar energy – on the contrary, Wirth believes that these industries need to be allied, rather than fight each other.

5. Embracing energy efficiency
Wirth also referred to the urgent need to develop efficiency standards. “We know what to do,” he said, adding that creating these standards – similarly to renewable energy standards – is something legislators at the state level have experience with. Wirth pointed out that the development of energy standards will offer the “best immediate jobs program that exists”. “Efficiency is the first fuel,” he noted, “it has to be a major part of what we do.” The U.S. has to make a significant commitment on that front, to finance and encourage the development of these standards.

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New Study on Microbocides to Fight HIV Infection

A new microbicide study has begun in South Africa, testing a vaginal ring that releases microbicides to protect women from HIV infection. The ring is replaced once a month and requires no special effort on the part of the user or her partner. I heard Zeda Rosenberg, head of the International Partnership for Microbicides, talk about this ring at the Women Deliver conference. This is the 15th product tested by the partnership, and it’s the one that Dr. Rosenberg thinks is most likely to succeed.

If the microbicidal ring trial is successful, this will be a big deal. A once-a-month ring would allow women to protect themselves without requiring the cooperation of their partner. It would be easy to provide and easy for women to use.

I hope Dr. Rosenberg is right about the ring. We won’t know until the study completes in 2015, and there have been plenty of microbicide failures to date. So far, they have all been useless against. Except, of course, for Nonoxynol-9, which actually increased the risk of infection.

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Talking UNIFEM and the “Gender Entity” at the UN

I thought folks might be interested in another one of my talk radio day interviews at the UN.  I sat down with Moae Doraid, deputy executive director of UNIFEM. We talk about the role of UNIFEM in the constellation of UN programs and agencies advocating for women and about a new effort underway at the UN to bring all of these gender and women-focused agencies under the same management structure. 

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