Stability, peace aid relief efforts

Updated: 2011-10-17 08:01

By D J Clark (China Daily)

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 Stability, peace aid relief efforts

Somali refugees wait for food at a distribution center in Mogadishu on Oct 12. Chinese food aid to Somalia, which is worth as much as $16 million, has started to arrive in the country. Faisal Isse / Xinhua

Editor's note: In the first part of a series on the food crisis in the Horn of Africa, D J Clark looks at the ways nations in the region are dealing with the situation.

ADDIS ABABA, Ethiopia - At the Babile hospital in eastern Ethiopia the children's ward was practically empty. Two malnourished children sat with their mothers on thin black mattresses on the floor.

The empty corridors of a hospital which serves 30,000 people in the heart of an area recently highlighted by UNICEF as a food crisis hotspot demonstrate a fact little known beyond the borders of Ethiopia. Most of the countries affected by the Horn of Africa drought have managed to cope extremely well.

"For three months the media has been reporting this drought to be the worst in 60 years, but what they failed to describe is how well we have dealt with it," said Tadesse Bekele, deputy director of Disaster Risk Management at the Ethiopian Ministry of Agriculture.

"Nature betrayed us and it has been a difficult time, but we worked hard with our development partners to respond."

While the food crisis in Ethiopia appears to be slowly easing, across the border in Somalia the situation is very different. Continued fighting between Al Shabaab and Transitional Federal Government/African Union Mission forces has made reaching those in need extremely treacherous.

Somalia now has some of the world's highest malnutrition rates, with three out of 10 children under the age of 5 being acutely malnourished, according to UNICEF.

The US government international development wing, USAID, estimates that 29,000 children under the age of 5 died in the first three months of the drought in Somalia, with that figure now presumed to be much higher with the famine intensifying.

"Although it was the same lack of rain that hit the three countries the response was very different," Lynne Miller, deputy country manager of the World Food Programme (WFP) in Ethiopia, explained.

"In Kenya and Ethiopia there are structures in place that give us a clear indication of what the food needs will be in the coming months and we are able to respond. In Somalia there isn't quite that system in place, there are conflict areas with security issues that make it very difficult to access."

The UN estimates there are currently 13.3 million people across the Horn of Africa in need of emergency assistance, with 4.5 million in Ethiopia, 3.75 million in Kenya, 4 million in Somalia and 150,000 in Djibouti.

The situation across the region can be broadly broken down into three different crises, all with different levels of severity and needs.

In Ethiopia, Kenya and Djibouti, where stable governments working with international development organizations have the infrastructure to deal with the drought, the question has simply been about having the resources to make up for the shortfall in food.

China, which has contributed 342 million yuan ($54 million) in bilateral aid to the three countries. The response has been successful.

In Somalia, where Al Shabaab controls large areas of the country, the UN has declared famine for the first time since 1991 in a number of districts.

On Oct 2, Al Shabaab confiscated 10 trucks carrying food aid in one of the worst affected areas, interrupting the movement of aid and jeopardizing the operations of humanitarian partners.

Fighting has also intensified around Mogadishu, threatening the livelihoods of nearly half a million internally displaced people sheltering in the region.

Even with October rains now starting to fall, the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs still estimates the situation in Somalia is set to worsen over the coming months.

The third crisis exists in continually expanding refugee camps outside the borders of Somalia. The influx of Somali refugees into Kenya and Ethiopia continues, although the rate of daily arrivals to Kenya seems to be decreasing.

In September, an average of 1,000 refugees arrived each day in Dadaab, now the world's biggest refugee camp with an estimated half-a-million population, down from a peak of 1,600 a day in June.

In contrast, last week in Ethiopia, the rate of refugee arrivals increased from an average of 250 to 450 per day, according to the UNHCR, which supervises the camps.

More than a quarter of Somalia's 9.9 million people have now been displaced from their homes. Nearly a million of them are now outside the countries, putting additional stress on host nations.

Last week the WFP began the distribution of food purchased with a 100 million yuan donation from China - the country's largest single donation to WFP humanitarian operations.

The UN organization hopes to use the aid to reach an estimated 1.7 million people desperately in need of food, though this will depend on the security situation improving.

The WFP estimates it is currently only reaching about half the people in need of food in Somalia.

Back in Ethiopia, Bekele is confident with the Chinese food shipments now starting to arrive along with greatly anticipated seasonal rains, the situation is for the time being is under control.

"We had good rains and a reasonable harvest in some areas so, with that expectation, the number of food dependent beneficiaries will definitely go down by the end of the year," he claimed.

Miller of the WFP is also optimistic about the immediate future, however warns "there are increasing signs of another La Nina event in this area in the next few months which would mean another year of low rainfall, but it is very difficult to predict and be sure how that may play out".

For the immediate future the crisis across the Horn of Africa appears to be focusing on one country. As the situation improves in the countries that surround Somalia, the famine inside the unstable nation appears to be worsening.

For China Daily

(China Daily 10/17/2011 page11)