06/28/2012 12:03 pm ET Updated Aug 28, 2012

Emergency in the Sahel: Two Families' Fight for Survival

This blog is part of a series organized by The Huffington Post and the NGO alliance InterAction to call attention to the crisis in the Sahel, a region in sub-Saharan Africa where more than 18 million people face starvation and 1.1 million children under the age of 5 are at risk of dying from acute malnutrition. Click here to read more of HuffPost Impact's coverage of the Sahel and here to find out what InterAction members and others are doing in the Sahel.

I've seen traumatized genocide orphans in Rwanda. I have seen sobbing families fleeing their villages in the Balkans. I have traveled to more than 50 countries, many in times of humanitarian emergency, and I've seen more malnourished babies than I can count.

But I was recently in Mauritania, and I have rarely seen anything that has left me as frustrated and saddened as what I saw there. There's a severe drought in the Sahel region of West and Central Africa that is putting more than 1 million children's lives at risk. It's a "silent emergency" that desperately needs our attention.

Larger than Texas and New Mexico combined, but with a population of only 3 million, Mauritania is a country under siege from two simultaneous emergencies. One of nine countries in the Sahel region of Africa where drought has led to the worst food shortages in years, Mauritania has also become temporary home to about 65,000 refugees who have fled across the border from Mali to escape violent unrest. The bottom line: one in four families simply don't have enough to eat and their children's lives are at risk.

At the UNICEF-assisted malnutrition treatment center at Kaedi Hospital, pediatrician Dr. Wague Diango told me, "With the drought, deaths have increased this year. Parents are forced to travel long distances to get help for their children. The ones who are going to feel the nutrition crisis the most are the little ones because they are the weakest and most vulnerable."

Deida Bussab is typical of the many mothers I met at the center who had raced their babies to Kaedi for help. Her son, Ahmed Salim, is almost a year old and weighs just 11 pounds. "We used to farm but now we have no rain. It's so hard for us and for the animals because we can't grow crops and the animal have nothing to eat and are dying. All of the families are suffering."

I asked to see the closest thing to a "happy ending" and was taken 20 kilometers away to meet 35-year-old Rougui Sal and her 2-year-old son, Idy Oumar in the rural village of Gaurdiouma. The month before, Rougui had raced Idy to the hospital when he became dangerously malnourished and dehydrated. Several weeks later, to her relief, Idy became healthier and stronger and Rougui was told she could take him home.

When I arrived she greeted me warmly. I asked her how her family was and if she had lost any of her livestock in the drought. She didn't want to answer at first; in her culture sharing bad news is not done. But she finally let me know that 40 of her 60 goats and sheep had died, leaving the family in crisis.

Although Idy was doing better, she had brought him home to the very conditions that had threatened his life in the first place. Fortunately, UNICEF was still supplying her with nutritionally fortified peanut paste -- a miracle substance that does not need to be refrigerated so families can take packets of it home to keep their children on the mend for as long as possible.

But for the rest of her children and herself, things are far harsher. As we talked, she made the family's only meal for the day -- a porridge of corn meal, sugar and water. Carefully ladling it out into large plastic cups for her older kids, I noticed that Rougui took a tiny tin cup that could barely hold a half portion, and filled it for herself. I asked her why she wasn't giving herself more. Her answer broke my heart. "I must favor the children."

What Rougui, Deida, and their children are enduring cannot continue without an outcry. While we may not be able to stop droughts, we can prevent them from devastating children and their families. Silence will kill them, but our voices and support can save them.

To learn more about the crisis in the Sahel and UNICEF's response, visit