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Fatime Owye and her mother, Halime Djime, who travelled 700 kilometres to take the girl to the hospital for emergency care. Fatime's father, who owned a small herd of camels, left the family three years ago in search of work when the climate became too harsh for the camels. (Geoffrey York/The Globe and Mail/Geoffrey York/The Globe and Mail)
Fatime Owye and her mother, Halime Djime, who travelled 700 kilometres to take the girl to the hospital for emergency care. Fatime's father, who owned a small herd of camels, left the family three years ago in search of work when the climate became too harsh for the camels. (Geoffrey York/The Globe and Mail/Geoffrey York/The Globe and Mail)

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On the move in a warming world: The rise of climate refugees Add to ...

Five-year-old Fatime moves in slow motion, barely able to lift her skeletal arms and legs. Flies land on her face, and she is too weak to brush them away. She struggles to drink a cup of therapeutic milk, the only food she can swallow.

Her parents were nomads who owned dozens of camels that provided meat and milk for their family. Then the rains stopped coming. The thorn trees began dying, the vegetation withered up and the big herds of camels ceased to roam.

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"I've never seen this before," says her 29-year-old mother, Halime Djime, who has already lost two of her four children to malnutrition and disease. "Even when there were no trees, there would be vegetation. This is the first time that the land is all white."

Fatime weighs just seven kilograms - barely half of what she should weigh at her age. Teetering between life and death, her emaciated body evokes memories of Ethiopian famines in the 1980s. Yet she is not a poster child for a celebrity benefit concert or a charity campaign. Ignored by much of the world, the starving children of the African Sahel represent a new global challenge: How to respond to the climate crisis that the world's politicians have failed to fix, and how to break the cycle of endless emergency aid in an era of donor fatigue.

Fatime's father has been on the move for years, selling his few remaining camels and seeking work in Libya and eastern Chad. His wife does not even know where he is any more. These are the days of the "climate refugees" - families splitting apart as migrants flee from increasingly harsh conditions where survival is nearly impossible.

As the desert relentlessly expands and rainfall disappears, the villages in this part of the Sahel are almost empty of men. Most have trekked to Libya or Nigeria in search of jobs. Of the people who remain, 80 per cent are women and children.

Across the Sahel, a band of semi-arid land south of the Sahara stretching from the Atlantic Ocean to the Red Sea, an estimated 10 million people suffered food shortages this year, including 850,000 children who are acutely malnourished and could die without urgent care. In the Sahel region of Chad, more than 20 per cent of children are acutely malnourished, on top of a chronic malnutrition rate of about 50 per cent. In some regions, mothers are desperately digging into anthills in search of tiny grains and seeds for their children. And this is just one of many places around the world where the changing climate has left the people dependent on foreign aid.

When the 190-nation climate conference in Cancun, Mexico, staggered to an end last weekend, there was no binding agreement on curbing carbon emissions and no sign of a treaty to replace the soon-expiring Kyoto Protocol. The negotiators will try again next December. But regardless of those negotiations, the facts on the ground will not change: The climate is growing more precarious, and millions of people are on the move. The question now is whether to encourage them to migrate - or to salvage their ravaged land with long-term investment, instead of simply handing out emergency aid.

Unable to agree on a climate treaty, the wealthy nations at Cancun promised to help the poorer countries "adapt" to climate change. The people of the Sahel, however, have already been adapting for years - mostly by voting with their feet, abandoning their barren fields and migrating hundreds of kilometres in search of work.

"Anyone who could afford to leave has left," says 71-year-old Adji Goukouni, deputy chief of the village of Mampel, a collection of beehive huts and stick fences in the sandy wastes of the Sahel.

"I am too old to move," he says. "I have no strength left to work. If I have to die, I will die here."

For more than a decade now, he has been bewildered by the changing weather patterns. Fifteen years ago, he had more than 30 cows, 10 donkeys, five camels and five horses. Then they began dying. Within the past three years, his last remaining livestock perished.

"The rainfall has been diminishing all the time," he says. "The wind is stronger than before, and animals are fleeing. We have nothing left - we only have goats. All the animals are gone, and the wild animals too, even the geckos and hyenas and guinea fowl."

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