© UNICEF/UN028424/Esiebo Kosha Mallam brings her grandson Ahmadou Sheriff for Severe Acute Malnutrition (SAM) treatment at one of the health centres UNICEF is supporting in Banki dispacement camp, Borno State, north-east Nigeria.

An Extreme Malnutrition Crisis is Escalating in Northern Nigeria

The warnings about a severe humanitarian crisis underway in a remote corner of Nigeria previously controlled by Boko Haram are becoming increasingly dire. This is arguably the worst humanitarian crisis in the world today that receives the least amount of attention.

Here is a sampling of press releases from large humanitarian organizations with operations in Borno state, located along Lake Chad in the northeast of the country

This is from UNICEF on July 19: “An estimated quarter of a million children in Borno state, North-East Nigeria, face severe malnourishment and risk death, UNICEF said today, as the scale of the humanitarian crisis caused by the Boko Haram emergency continues to unfold.”

This is from MSF on July 27: “A major humanitarian operation is needed to save lives in northeastern Nigeria’s Borno state, where more than 500,000 people are living in catastrophic conditions in villages and towns affected by the conflict between the military and Boko Haram, the international medical humanitarian organization Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) warned today, after finding extremely high levels of malnutrition in another town where MSF teams recently gained access. About 15,000 displaced people are sheltering around Banki, a town near the Cameroonian border that is accessible only by military escort. MSF medical teams found that as many as one in 12 people there died in the past six months. Nearly a third of the children are malnourished, and 15 percent of children under five are suffering from severe acute malnutrition.”

This is from Mercy Corps on August 1: ” As aid organizations in northeast Nigeria gain access to areas previously under Boko Haram control, alarming suffering, need and devastation is becoming increasingly evident, according to the global organization Mercy Corps. In what a United Nations official  is calling the “worst humanitarian crisis in 20 years,” an estimated 7 million people are in need of lifesaving aid in the worst affected areas in the northeast; of those, an estimated 2.5 million people are malnourished and lack access to food and safe drinking water. “

Why is this happening?

I spoke with humanitarian worker Joe Read, who has served extensively in the region. She offered some perspective on why this crisis is seemingly intensifying. “Because there has not been timely intervention to address the displacement crisis as it was growing, these issues have reached a head for the last two years in the rainy season,” says Read. “I think the difference this year, and the reason you are getting so many press releases at the moment is because there is now a broader coverage and a view of what is going on in rural areas, outside of [the state capitol] Maiduguri.”

Another aggravating factor, according to Read, is an ad hoc humanitarian relief operation run by the Nigerian military that have not been in line with international standards. Boko Haram was ousted from the major cities of this region in military operations last year, but the millions of displaced people have not yet been able to return home. Instead, many are living in displaced persons camps run by the Nigerian military, which has been unable to adequately provide food, water and sanitation to displaced populations.

That is starting to change. The so-called “cluster system” was activated in mid August. This is a standard practice in which international NGOs and UN agencies assume responsibility over a specific relief effort and coordinate their operations in a systematized way. Still, this crisis is far from the headlines, which is impacting the funding available to agencies operating in the region. As of last week, only 37% of a $279 million humanitarian appeal for displaced people in Nigeria, and only 24% of a $198 million appeal for refugees and displaced in bordering Chad, Cameroon and Niger has been filled.

Unless donors step up, this humanitarian crisis will grind one and we will see more and more of these press releases from exasperated humanitarian organizations fighting an uphill battle to save lives in a forgotten corner of the globe.