Central African Republic: a heightened sense of vulnerability
The ICRC has just begun distributing food aid to 55,000 people in the east of the Central African Republic. Christa Utiger, the ICRC's economic security coordinator for the country, explains the background to the operation.
Why has the ICRC decided to launch this operation?
The decision to provide food aid in Mboki, Obo, Rafai and Zemio – four of the larger towns in the region – reflects our concern over the continuing erosion of food security in eastern Central African Republic.
Land has never been an issue here before: the fertile prefecture of Haut Mbomou is one of the most sparsely populated regions in the country. However, violence and the heightened sense of vulnerability it generates have disrupted traditional ways of life. In recent months, over 20,000 people from surrounding villages have flooded into these towns in search of safety, basically doubling the population. They were joined by 6,000 Congolese refugees.
As a result, demand for food has increased while crop production – because displaced people are forced to leave their fields largely untended – has declined. Fields close to towns are over-used and becoming less productive, pushing food prices up. And it is not only small crop farmers who have been adversely affected; pastoralists have reacted by changing grazing patterns and moving closer to the towns. This is reducing available farmland and raising the possibility of clashes over land between pastoralists and farmers.
Increased insecurity has also significantly reduced the volume of trade in the region. Mboki has always been a commercial crossroads and major market town but traders now think twice before coming here to buy cattle. This has a huge impact on the community's earnings.
All these factors have combined to create a food security problem that has become more acute with time and led us to act.
What does the ICRC hope to achieve?
The aim of the food aid is to supplement depleted food stocks and help communities survive this period of violence. We have decided to provide assistance for the entire population of these towns because everyone is affected. Every household will receive aid consisting of rice or maize, white beans or groundnuts, oil and salt: staple foods and good sources of protein and energy.
The ICRC also plans to distribute seed to the same communities – before the sowing season in early 2011 – to ensure good harvests towards the end of the year and enough food at reasonable prices. In this way, we hope to give communities the means to get back on their feet.
What logistical challenges do you face?
This is a vast and fertile region, but it is bush and lacks the most basic infrastructure, such as tarmac roads and bridges. In the rainy season, the dirt roads deteriorate rapidly and the rivers swell. It can take trucks as much as three weeks to travel from Bangui to Obo, a distance of some 1,300 kilometres. The journey involves four ferry crossings: the trucks have to be completely unloaded to make the crossings and then loaded up again on the other side. As you can imagine, all this takes time. Another challenge is the insecurity along the road and in the region.
This operation requires an immense amount of advance planning to ensure that food reaches the towns at the right time. And patience, too, is a necessity!