Drought pushes vulnerable children to the edge

UNICEF Emergency work in Mozambique

Maria Conforme, 23, is trying to write lesson plans while her son Junior, 2, vies for her attention. The detailed plans are arranged in tables on sheets of paper spread across a large straw mat on the dirt ground in her dingy one-room home, containing only a few plastic chairs and water carriers. If she fails to finish her plans during daylight hours, Maria has to use a candle as there is no electricity.

Maria explains she has a deadline as her classes begin this week. Her main challenge is finding someone who can look after Junior while she teaches the afternoon shift.

In the past, Maria left Junior and his brother, Elizio, 10, with their grandmother, who lives 80 kilometres away in the district of Changara in the northern province of Tete. Yet, it was not the distance that made Maria change her childcare plans, but the impact of last year’s drought on Junior.

Junior’s grandmother, a widow who has never been to school, depends on her plot for their livelihood, so when her crops failed, she resorted to giving the family vegetables she had dried the year before. It was not just the vegetables that had dried up, but also the nutrients. To make matters worse, Junior fell sick with fever and diarrhoea.

UNICEF Emergency mozambique
Clayton Banda, a young radio producer in Tete.
“We suffer a lot from drought in this province. We need to pay attention to early warnings” — Clayton, 14.

His grandmother phoned Maria to say she would take Junior to a traditional healer. But Junior’s condition worsened. Equipped with oral rehydration sachets, Maria made the journey after her last lesson of the week. She found Junior emaciated. “I was shocked when I saw him,” says Maria as Junior’s weight had dropped to 4.5 kilograms at 11 months of age.

Carrying Junior, Maria made the seven-hour journey home walking across hilly terrain and using public transport whenever it was available. At the local health centre in Changara, Junior was diagnosed with marasmus, a severe form of malnutrition as well as malaria, and had to spend one month in hospital. On average, last year, about seven children per month were successfully treated at Changara hospital, where Junior stayed. Nationally, last year UNICEF supported the treatment of over 8, 000 children with severe acute malnutrition.

“Although last year’s drought was probably the worst in 30 years, some provinces suffer recurrent drought each year, and we need to support these communities to become more resilient” — Tito Bonde, UNICEF.

Tete was one of the provinces most affected by the drought. Tito Bonde, UNICEF emergency specialist in Mozambique, highlights that UNICEF’s support includes making communities more prepared for emergencies. “Although last year’s drought was probably the worst in 30 years, some provinces suffer recurrent drought each year, and we need to support these communities to become more resilient,” says Bonde. He gives the example of how, in 2017, UNICEF will assist most drought-affected communities to have improved access to safe drinking water through restoring and upgrading community water points in 68 drought-affected communities, including 11 in Tete.

"The peanut paste has proved to be extremely effective when treating severe acute malnutrition. Usually, within 6-8 weeks, the child fully recovers" — Mathieu Joyeux, UNICEF.

Regarding nutrition, Mathieu Joyeux, UNICEF Nutrition Specialist, stresses that drought is not the main cause of malnutrition, “that is why the government’s multi-sectoral approach is key to addressing malnutrition. So UNICEF assists with government effort to promote good infant and child feeding practices, provide clean water and good sanitation, and quick access to health care, especially to provide prompt diagnosis and treatment of childhood illnesses and HIV.”

Prompt treatment is critical to survival. Although most cases of severe acute malnutrition are treatable, Iracema Goncalves, the nutritionist in Changara district, says that some children lose their lives, because mothers bring their children too late to the health centre. “They tend to go to a traditional healer first, and only come here when the child’s condition has got bad.”

This was the case with Junior, but fortunately he responded well to treatment. When Junior was discharged, his mother, Maria, continued treatment at home with peanut paste fortified with micronutrients which he can suck directly from the packets. “The peanut paste has proved to be extremely effective when treating severe acute malnutrition as it has the added advantage that it can be administered at home with regular monitoring at the health centres; only children with complications, like malaria, need to be treated in the hospital. Usually, within 6 to 8 weeks, the child fully recovers,” says Joyeux. Maria also received a bag of ground cereal, soya and beans.

Maria says she no longer wants to send Junior back to his grandmother’s when the term starts. Her neighbour may be the best option. She already helps by looking after Junior while Maria fetches water five times a day from a tap about a 15-minute walk from her home, which takes up a large chunk of her morning. “I need to find someone to look after him at my home, as I am now too scared to send him away,” she says as Junior snuggles up to her, smiling broadly.