Burkina Faso – food, water and health care are scarce
In late March 2023, more than 124,000 internally displaced people were living in Fada N'Gourma, alongside the town's local population of almost 188,000. The growing population has put basic services, particularly food, water and health care, under increasing strain.
Since 2015, Burkina Faso has been caught up in an ongoing spiral of violence that has displaced unprecedented numbers of people, forcing them to flee to other areas of the country or to neighbouring countries. Many people have lost their lives, communities have been made even more vulnerable, and basic facilities –¬ such as schools, health-care centres and markets – have been forced to close down because of the security situation.
On 31 March 2023, the National Council for Emergency Aid and Rehabilitation (CONASUR) reported that there were more than 2 million internally displaced people in the country, including over 1 million children. Burkina Faso is now one of the countries with the fastest-growing number of internally displaced people in the world.
Millions of people face food insecurity
The worsening security situation has made communities already grappling with drought and climate change even more vulnerable. The conflict between Russia and Ukraine has caused shortages of raw materials and pushed up food prices around the world, with dramatic consequences for communities in the Sahel region.
According to the United Nations Humanitarian Response Plan, 3.5 million people in Burkina Faso require food aid, and 1.3 million children and pregnant and breast-feeding women need emergency nutrition support.
Providing food aid to the most vulnerable
As a small team of International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) workers, we went from Ouagadougou, the capital of Burkina Faso, to Fada N'Gourma, which we will refer to simply as "Fada", to help the Burkinabe Red Cross Society hand out food rations and other basic supplies to vulnerable people in Gourma Province. When we arrived in Fada, we went straight to the ICRC's sub-delegation, which is located in Sector 1 – an area of the town with one of the highest numbers of internally displaced people. On the way, we came across chickens, goats and sheep. There were also many women and children sitting on the sides of the roads, which are mainly dirt tracks. But at the same time, many road works are actually in progress, with piles of gravel indicating that the roads will soon be paved. We also saw large numbers of tents, and housing being built – Fada is expanding to make room for all the displaced people.
After that, we set off for another part of the city to distribute food rations and basic supplies to 500 displaced and local families, selected because they are most likely to experience food insecurity. When we arrived, the distribution had already begun. Burkinabe Red Cross staff and volunteers were using carts to help the families transport the food to their motorbikes and bicycles, their main means of transport. Each family receives 50 kg of millet, 25 kg of rice, 20 kg of beans and 10 litres of oil to help them through the lean season.*
*The lean season is the period before the next harvest and after the grain from the previous harvest has been used up. The granaries are empty, and the fields have to be prepared to ensure that the next harvest is plentiful. Food is in short supply, and grain prices often rise sharply. The length of the lean season varies from one year to the next, but in Sahel countries it usually lasts for three months, from June to August.
The rainy season brings some hope for farming families
At the end of May 2023, these same families – who are mainly farmers – received seeds and farming tools from the ICRC, so that, when the rains arrived, they could start planting sorghum, millet, black-eyed peas, groundnuts, amaranth and sorrel.
With support from the ICRC, the Regional Department of Agriculture regularly provides training for the farmers. The aim is to increase production and build resilience so that farmers can grow enough crops to cover their basic needs. In the short term, the distribution of grain helps to reduce the food insecurity caused by poor or non-existent harvests.
We talked to Maïmouna, a displaced woman who has received food aid and seeds. She tells us her story:
At the moment, we eat twice a day – in the morning and in the evening. We don't eat at midday because there's not enough food. It's hard to work the land when you're hungry.
"One morning, our village was attacked and three people lost their lives. So we decided to leave the next evening. We walked with our cart until we reached the town of Fada, 65 km from home. There are 16 of us in my family. There were more of us, but unfortunately we're scattered in many places now. We came to Fada because we have family here who could take us in. At the moment, we eat twice a day – in the morning and in the evening. We don't eat at midday because there's not enough food. It's hard to work the land when you're hungry. This year, thanks to the food rations, we'll be able to eat well. That will give us enough strength to farm the land and ensure that we have reserves for the coming season."
Sinanbou is in his 60s and lives in Fada. For several years now, he has been taking internally displaced people into his home. We asked him how things were going: "It's going well. It's mainly women and children, and we welcome them with open arms. We don't have much, but you can't eat and drink and leave others hungry and thirsty. Last year, the house we had given them collapsed, so now we all live together under the same roof. We currently have three families with us, and we've given them plots of land so that they can farm too. They also have animals. There really are a lot of people here.
Water points targeted
Food insecurity is closely linked to water scarcity. When communities can't get water for farming, they can't cultivate their land and quickly end up in a situation where they don't have enough food and can experience malnutrition and even famine.
In Burkina Faso, water supplies have also been affected by the armed violence. Since 2022, the number of attacks on water points has risen, with more and more areas of the country being hit – the problem has spread from the Sahel to the Centre-Nord, Nord and Boucle du Mouhoun regions. In 2022, 58 water points were attacked, leaving more than 830,000 people without a water supply. And this year, these attacks began to occur in the eastern region as well. Between January and March 2023, 11 attacks were recorded at water points in the east of the country, leaving more than 23,000 people without access to this vital resource.
Getting water can be a dangerous task for women
Fetching water is traditionally the women's task, and they often have to wait in long queues to get it. In some places, up to 500 women may have to wait at a single water point, usually supplied by a human-powered pump. When a water point is used by so many people, the hand pump can quickly wear out. And the women are left exhausted by the long queues and the physical effort of pumping the water. They often have no choice but to fetch water during the night, which is more dangerous as there is a greater risk of being attacked or sexually assaulted. It also means that the women have to go out after the curfew, which is in place from 11pm to 5am in the city and across the eastern region.
Solar pumps – a cost-effective and environmentally friendly way of getting water
To help improve access to water in Fada, we have set up a system of solar pumps. The water is pumped from a borehole some 60–70 metres below the ground using energy harnessed from solar panels on the surface. The water is pumped up to the water tower without anyone needing to be there and without using any fuel. This solution is not only cost-effective – in terms of both the money and the effort saved – it's also environmentally friendly – solar energy is by no means in short supply in Burkina Faso. What's more, to make up for the lack of sunlight at night and to ensure that users have water in the early hours of the morning, we've installed batteries that enable the system to continue pumping water even after the sun goes down. Around 2,000 displaced people and locals now have a constant supply of water, which has greatly improved their lives.
Health care under attack
In recent years, there have also been a number of attacks on health-care facilities in Burkina Faso, which has affected the lives of more than 2 million people. Because of the violence, community health workers have been forced to flee rural areas and move to the towns, which are considered safer. As a result, 345 health-care facilities have had to close down, according to data from the Centre des Opérations de Réponse aux Urgences Sanitaires (CORUS).
Pregnant women are particularly vulnerable in situations of armed violence. The shortage of medicines and health care in their villages, and the fact that they are unable to walk long distances, can have a real impact on their health.
To ensure that those who have remained in their villages have access to basic health care, we support national health services by training community health workers and providing staff to support health facilities. We also supply national facilities with medicines and help them to improve their patient capacity.
A new maternity unit to give hope to pregnant women
To help improve women's reproductive health, we supported the construction of a maternity ward at the health centre in Sector 11, another area of Fada that is home to a large number of internally displaced people. An ICRC midwife supports the local maternity team there.
When we visited the facilities, we met Yendoubali, a young, displaced woman who had recently given birth to a baby girl at the hospital. She told us her story (French subtitles).
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Sita, the ICRC midwife who supports the local team, told us that the security situation and the curfew make it hard for women to get to maternity centres. As a result, many women give birth at home, without medical or paramedical supervision, which can pose serious health risks if there are any major complications.
In a waiting room at the centre, we meet three women with their babies, who are all suffering from malnutrition. The centre's staff carry out an initial check-up before providing nutritional supplements based on the severity of their malnutrition.
What does the future hold for internally displaced people and locals in Fada?
Thousands of people in Fada and elsewhere in Burkina Faso have stories like those of Maïmouna, Sinanbou and Yendoubali. Many displaced people and local communities face difficulties in accessing the resources they need. They all share the hope that peace will return and that basic services will become more readily available. As Sinanbou put in, "Without peace, nothing works".