The recent escalation of fighting and the subsequent displacement of people within Mali and to neighbouring countries is exacerbating the Sahel’s chronic food crisis and contributing to ever-rising levels of malnutrition, warns Yacouba Kone, Mali country director for the British and Irish churches' global development agency, Christian Aid.
"The current food crisis has already brought suffering to more than 18 million people across the region, and the more people are forced to flee the mounting military offensive in the north, the more market gardens are being abandoned and the less vegetables are being produced for child nutrition," he explains.
The UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) recently announced that the number of internally displaced persons (IDPs) is now over 200,000, with the renewed conflict in the north coming at a time when the agency estimates that 4.2 million Malians will need emergency humanitarian assistance this year.
Malian refugees have also sought refuge in neighbouring countries, with 1,829 new arrivals in Burkina Faso and 487 in Niger as of 21 January 2013, according to OCHA. Initial UNHCR assessments in Burkina Faso indicate insufficient food rations and the need to improve maternal health services.
As well as the pressing issue of growing regional food insecurity, there is also a crucial need to avoid confusion between Islamists on the one hand, and Touareg and Arab communities on the other, says Kone.
"As in previous northern Malian conflicts, many civilians of Arab and Touareg origin have been targeted by the military simply because of their ethnicity and unsubstantiated rumours that they are protecting the rebels," he says.
"We are now hearing reports that some Touareg and Arab community members are being attacked by Malian troops who may be seeking revenge for the atrocities committed by the rebels on January 2012 when many Malian soldiers were executed in Aguelhok, a military base in the Kidal Region of eastern Mali.
"All parties involved in the conflict must take the necessary measures to prevent harm to civilians, particularly women and children, as well as respecting the right of people in need to humanitarian aid and allowing rapid, safe and unimpeded passage to any agencies providing it," comments Yacouba Kone.
Due to its partnership approach, Christian Aid is currently able to provide emergency aid through established Malian organisations in many regions affected by the violence, including Gao in the north, and Bandiagara on the Dogon Plateau in Mopti region.
Kone continues: "We are working closely with local NGOs to provide safe drinking water to poor communities in isolated areas and to address the nutritional needs of children and other vulnerable groups affected by the conflict."
"Any efforts to reduce long-term suffering in Mali must address the region’s entrenched poverty and vulnerability to chronic food crises, by building resilient livelihoods," Christian Aid’s Mali country director adds.