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Millions at Risk as Drought Strikes African Horn

Starvation not likely, but suffering is widespread, say aid workers

The United Nations is warning of a “serious food crisis” and aid workers say malnutrition levels have doubled as drought, rising food prices and armed conflict have struck the Horn of Africa all at once, leaving more than 10 million people at risk.

“’Are people starving?’ Yes, people are increasingly hungry. Malnutrition levels are in some places in the Horn are double or more the emergency threshold, which is 15% of children malnourished,” Peter Smerdon, a spokesman for World Food Programme (WFP), told The Media Line.  “There are malnutrition levels in parts of the Horn of up to 40% so that is an extremely worrying situation.”

The Horn of Africa encompasses war-torn Somalia and Sudan as well as Ethiopia, Eritrea and Kenya – areas that are impoverished, under developed and politically unstable even when environmental conditions are favorable. A UN map of the areas show the epicenter, defined as “emergency” zones, covering wide swathes in Somalia and Ethiopia. Designated “crisis” zones extend into northern Sudan.

At a press briefing in Geneva, Elisabeth Byrs, spokeswoman of the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), warned that one out of every three children in Somalia is suffering from malnutrition.

“We see an increase of more than 30% of people affected by this drought since the beginning of 2011,” Byrs said. “Over 10 million people are affected and nine million people are in need of humanitarian assistance.”

“It’s currently estimated that because of weak rains the drought situation has worsened and in certain places we haven’t seen any rain at all. We haven’t seen such a drought in 60 years. One can even go back to the1950s to find a situation so dramatic. More than 10 million people need assistance, and there is a serious food crisis,” Byrs said.

Aid workers have said the situation is getting worse. Starving Somalis have flooded into refugee camps in Kenya. Save The Children’s Sonia Zambakides told the BBC that the situation is desperate.

“A mother arrived at one of our feeding centres saying she’d actually left her children behind in a village because she couldn’t watch them die. She’d walked away and left her six children in a house – two of them ended up dying and we managed to reach four others,” Zambakides was quoted as saying.

She added that children are arriving barefoot after six-week treks and were covered in sores and wounds and dehydrated. “These people are absolutely desperate. We don’t know how many people are not surviving,” she said.

Smerdon of the WFP explained that famine early-warning systems in June found that 2010-2011 would be the driest year in the region since 1950 -1951. He said the so-called “long rains” ended in June and in many areas they failed or were well below normal.

“That is the driver behind this crisis but of course, in Somalia, conflict makes things a lot harder and people already suffering from drought and displaced by conflict then suffer more and more,” he said.

Byrs stressed that more funding is needed, noting that the $39 million Djibouti appeal “is only 30% funded, which is almost nothing.” OCHA also warned that appeals for Somalia and Kenya, each about $525 million are barely 50% funded.

Some experts say the drought could be as severe as the one that caused mass starvation in Ethiopia in the early 1980s although the international community is better prepared to deal with it.

However, Smerdon said that while this was the driest year on record for over half a century, the humanitarian crisis was worse in 2009 when some 22 million people needed assistance. Smerdon said the high food prices were also a factor, particularly in northern Somalia.

“In normal years – and they haven’t had a normal year for many, many years – they import 60% of their food. Currently food prices are extremely high and that is making the number in need of humanitarian assistance increase.”

He said the WFP is trying to feed 1.2 million people in Mogadishu and central and northern Somalia. Since 2010 they haven’t been able to operate in the more volatile southern Somalia which was under control of the Al-Qa’ida-linked insurgents.

“We have large shortfalls of contributions for both Ethiopia and Somalia and in February we had to start cutting rations. In May we only had enough food left to feed 63% of the almost 1 million people we had planned to be feeding that month in Somalia,” he said.