Horn of Africa drought: 10 million could starve

Friday, July 08, 2011

The worst drought to hit the Horn of Africa in six decades has driven scores of malnourished and desperate people to the world’s largest refugee camp.

The United Nations describes the situation in the region as the most severe food security emergency in the world today, with the Famine Early Warning Systems Network warning that the response is “inadequate to prevent a further deterioration”. Levels of severe, acute malnutrition in this area, particularly among children, are also of great concern.

The mix of drought, skyrocketing food prices, food shortages, deaths of livestock in large numbers and conflict in Somalia has led to a massive increase in the number of new arrivals each day in Dadaab refugee camp, run by ACT Alliance, on the Kenya-Somalia border.

The camp receives about 1300 people daily, mostly women with children and elderly people. The noticeable influx of people fleeing the drought began at the end of May, swelling an already overcrowded camp that is now home to 370,000.

The camp opened 20 years ago to shelter 90,000 people displaced by the war in Somalia. At the time, a family of five lived on a plot of land the same size as a small house. Since late 2008, UNHCR has had to put second families on each plot land. And then third families.

In just the last three years, the fighting in Somalia has pushed the camp population up by 85 percent, putting immense pressure on aid, the environment and straining relations between refugees and residents of nearby towns.

Camp officials are now unable to register all arrivals, although everyone receives food. More than 42,000 new arrivals are forced to take shelter outside the camp boundaries because the camp is unable to accommodate them. The number grows by the day.

“People are arriving exhausted and dehydrated. Between 20 and 30 children malnourished children die every month soon after reaching the camp.”

Lennart Hernander, speaking on behalf of ACT, says people are arriving at Dadaab noticeably malnourished, and that between 20 and 30 children die of malnutrition in the camp each month. “In June, it was obvious just by passing through the graveyard that there were new children’s graves.

“When people arrive, they are exhausted from walking and often dehydrated. We are seeing more older people which is unusual. The elderly tend to stay put in their homes until things get really bad,” Hernander said.

Some new arrivals had travelled from as far as Mogadishu, in some cases on foot over 1000km, with the malnutrition rates among new arrivals reaching 15 percent.

The United Nations says that throughout the Horn of Africa, more than 10 million people need emergency aid, with Kenya and Ethiopia recorded as having the largest number - 3.2 million each- hungry. The UN predicts there could be famine in some of the worst drought affected areas by September.

On July 7, it was reported that Islamist rebels had lifted a ban on humanitarian agencies supplying food aid to millions of Somalis.

ACT members in the region say they have never seen such a crisis in their lives, with one member of staff saying “things are changing by the hour and the situation has never been this bad.”

In the two worst-affected countries, Kenya and Ethiopia, ACT is distributing food and supplementary feeding for children, the elderly and nursing mothers, improving existing water supplies and trucking in water to some areas. In the longer term, ACT will be looking to rehabilitate pastures, ponds and water points, re-stock goat and sheep herds and grow animal feed.

But that will only happen when the current hunger crisis is over. For now ACT’s priorities are to meet people’s urgent need for food, clean water, shelter and medicine and to join forces with other aid agencies, UN bodies and governments in order to reach as many as possible of the 10 million people who risk starving to death.

Governments and aid agencies are meeting to prioritise needs. Some ACT members are also lobbying governments in the region to declare national disasters as they mount their responses to the crisis.

ACT's work in Dadaab is carried out by the Lutheran World Federation (LWF), which manages the camp.

For more information go to the ACT Alert Reference Number: 21/2011