Temperatures Rising; the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen Will Witness a United Front from Africa for the First Time in History. African Countries Want $150Bn to Help Africans Adapt to Climate Change. Steve Dub Went to Mali to Find out Why. in the First of Two Reports He Finds the Country Getting Hotter and Drier

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Byline: Steve Dub

ADA Gildo walked nearly 12 miles through the baking heat of north-west Africa with her two-year-old son Mody, weak from malnutrition, wrapped on her back. The 35-year-old mother of four was heavily pregnant, and gave birth to her fifth child a few days later.

They were victims of the crop failures and droughts that are now commonplace in sub-Saharan Africa, and they were among the lucky ones.

They reached the Ureni centre for malnourished children at Bandiagara, jointly funded by Christian Aid, Caritas, and the European Commission, in the heart of Dogon tribal country in Mali, a landlocked state that is the seventh largest in the continent and one of the poorest in the world.

The centre serves 57 villages and 40,000 people in the semi-arid Sahel region to the north of Mali, where 10% of under-fives - around 5,000 children - are malnourished. The conditions at the health centre are spartan and there is room for just six children, although there are usually more. Those who make it there along the rutted dirt roads or narrow trails through the bush are given vitamins, iron supplements, high protein milk, antibiotics and the nutritious high calorie emergency ration called plumpy nut. "There are many cases like this in my village," said Ada, whose mother and uncle came with her to cook and look after her - the centre cannot afford to do either.

"Mody is feeling better now and gaining weight, but without this place I would have to leave it to God and wait to see what happened."

Dr Sidi Sangar, who is in charge of the centre's nutrition programme, said he is seeing more and more severely malnourished children - and mothers, who often fail to carry their babies for the full term of pregnancy.

He says there are 1,200 acutely malnourished children in the area, but the centre has only managed to help 720 this year.

Hunger is just one symptom of the crisis in Mali, where thousands are moving south to escape increasingly arid conditions as the Sahara spreads southwards into the semi-arid tropical savanna of the Sahel.

Villages are emptying of the young and able in a land where 80% of the population depends on farming to survive, and tensions among the settled population in the south are growing as unwanted migrants arrive.

"They haven't killed anybody - yet," said David Sagara, director of the enterprise agency APH, a French acronym that loosely translates as People for Action, which works in partnership with Christian Aid in and around Bandiagara.

But there has been violence, and it's all down to a climate that is getting hotter and drier.

The rainy season used to start in May and continue to the end of October. Before 1973 the average rainfall was 600mm - around 24.5 inches - a year. It's down one-third since then to around 450mm and, when it comes, the rain is heavier, leading to serious erosion. And now the rains don't come until July, and sometimes return unexpectedly late in the year and ruin crops.

"In the past farmers used to know when to plant their crops because certain plants flowered just before the start of the rainy season," said Mr Sagara.

"Now the flowers no longer bloom when they should so the farmers don't know whether the rains will come. Sometimes they sow their seed anyway in hope and sometimes they fail."

The young and able-bodied, waiting for the rains amid uncertainty and no work, move south, swelling the population in the south of this vast country - five times the size of the UK.

"So when the rains do come, there can be no-one except the old people left and not enough able bodies to cultivate the land. The year's harvest is missed and people go hungry," said Mr Sagara.

APH, in partnership with Christian Aid, and other African and international aid agencies, does what it can to help counter the effects of a changing climate that is no longer reliable. …