United Nations relief agencies have sounded the alarm today about the humanitarian situation in six countries across the Horn of Africa, where a combination of drought conditions and soaring food prices has left more than 14 million people in urgent need of food aid.
The region’s governments and their humanitarian partners must act promptly to save lives and prevent the crisis affecting Ethiopia, Somalia, Kenya, Uganda, Eritrea and Djibouti from escalating, according to a joint press release issued today in Nairobi by the six agencies and three non-governmental organizations (NGOs).
The Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF), the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), the World Health Organization (WHO) and the World Food Programme (WFP) warned that “large areas of the Horn of Africa are facing – or rapidly sliding into – a state of humanitarian emergency.”
The widespread drought and the rising food prices have struck a region where many people, especially the rural poor, are already struggling because of conflict, displacement and a drop in food production.
Poor hygiene and sanitation and low rates of immunization in some areas are also fuelling outbreaks of diseases and posing particularly high risks for mothers and newborn children.
One of the hardest hit countries in the region is Ethiopia, where 4.6 million people in the south and east are now estimated to need emergency food support and an additional 5.7 million others are classed as drought-affected.
UNICEF has started airlifting food supplies to the capital, Addis Ababa, for regional distribution to help many of the 75,000 severely malnourished children across the country.
In Somalia, beset by conflict and the absence of a functioning national government for the best part of two decades, food prices have skyrocketed in the past 18 months. The price of imported rice has risen by 350 per cent between January 2007 and May this year in some markets.
As many as 2.6 million Somalis, including an increasing number of urban poor, are now in need of urgent humanitarian assistance, the agencies say, adding that the situation in that country is likely to deteriorate in the next few months.
Kenyans are also suffering because of rising food prices, in their case exacerbated by post-election violence and displacement at the start of the year that caused a drop in food production in the normally fertile Rift Valley province. Widespread animal diseases have also sapped the livelihoods of many farmers.
In neighbouring Uganda, residents of the Karamoja region in the northeast are enduring the effects of a prolonged dry spell and emerging crop diseases. WFP has begun distributing emergency food rations to over 700,000 people ahead of the next harvest, which is due in September.
The likelihood of drought is high in Eritrea as well after below-average rainfall over the past 12 months. Cereal crop production is already reduced, although the agencies said there is cautious optimism that there will be decent rainfall between now and September.
More than 80,000 people in the small nation of Djibouti are also in urgent need of food and other aid because of the sub-standard amounts of recent rainfall. The drought there has hurt the northwest the most, with as many as one in four children in that region suffering from acute malnutrition.