TIMBUKTU -- World Food Programme Executive Director Josette Sheeran was welcomed in a blaze of colour, music and gratitude as she visited WFP projects around the fabled city of Timbuktu in northern Mali on Wednesday.
A gateway to the Sahara, Timbuktu has become of a focal point of WFP’s efforts to combat the growing menace of climate change and desertification in the Sahel region of West Africa.
"All our work in this part of the world is designed to help people adapt to their rapidly changing environment. If we don’t help people with the tools for life, they are far more likely to be pushed over the edge in a crisis," said WFP Executive Director Josette Sheeran.
The people of Timbuktu still remember with awe the cataclysmic drought of 1973, speaking of it in hushed whispers. A branch of the river Niger used to be navigable right into the heart of the town, but silted up long ago. Wherever you look, the desert is advancing.
“This is ground zero in the fight against climate change,” Ms Sheeran said as she took in the daily reality of life in one of the most marginal regions in the world.
“The people of Timbuktu are not experiencing climate change as some kind of scientific theory, but as a fact. They have to adapt now, today, and WFP is here to help them,” she said.
Ms Sheeran first visited a reforestation project run by the Kabara Women’s Cooperative, which has been working with WFP since 1992 to replant trees and reclaim precious land for agriculture.
It’s estimated that since WFP first started these projects, over five million trees have been planted in and around Timbuktu.
The president of the women’s cooperative, Maiga Zeinabu, stressed how important the support of WFP was for them; that it had kept families together by persuading men not to head to the towns in search of work, and provided them with income to feed their children better, send them to school well-clothed, and to provide them with the ‘extras’ that are the spice of life.
“You can see that Timbuktu is green – that’s all thanks to WFP. Before there were no trees between here and Timbuktu because of drought. Now we’ve reached a stage we never thought possible. We have seen a great change. Our whole family lives have changed for the better.”
Mali, like all the other countries of the Sahel, is engaged in an often unreported battle against malnutrition.
At Toya Health Centre, Sheeran saw how WFP is working together with the government and UNICEF to combat the scourge, which can severely limit development and also kill.
Welcomed by a troop of Tuaregs on camelback brandishing scimitar swords, Sheeran sat alongside mothers and their children as they received a daily ration of corn-soya blend porridge to protect them against malnutrition.
The final stop was Nebkit school which is cut adrift in the dunes outside Timbuktu, but nevertheless it receives rations from WFP to provide school meals for all its students.
The children lined up in rows to sing “Merci Josette” as she made her way into the compound to meet the parents and then sit alongside the students as they tucked into lunch.
“All our work in this part of the world is designed to help people adapt to their rapidly changing environment. If we don’t help people with the tools for life, they are far more likely to be pushed over the edge in a crisis,” Sheeran said.