Friday, December 12, 2008

Famine: Humanitarian catastrophe looms as 20 million in Horn of Africa face famine

The International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies warns that 20 million people in the Horn of Africa are at risk of famine and that urgent action must be taken to avert a humanitarian catastrophe. The Federation is launching an emergency appeal for more than $80 million to help 3.5 million people during the next five years.

The Red Cross Federation says there is no major famine yet in the Horn of Africa. But it warns that millions of people are on the brink of starvation. And, if the world turns a blind eye, it says the same distressing skeletal images that appeared on nightly television in 1984 could reappear.

The Horn of Africa is experiencing severe drought. The Red Cross says food is in short supply. Many people are struggling to survive on a single meal a day. Water is scarce. Many farmers have lost more than 70 percent of their livestock because grazing lands are barren.

Red Cross official Roger Bracke headed a recent assessment mission in the Horn of Africa. He says the recurrence, severity and duration of drought in the region probably is related to climate change. And this, he says, is a significant factor in the current emergency.

But he says it would be simplistic to blame the crisis on drought alone. He says there are a number of external factors that are adding to the food shortage.

"We believe it is probably the first time in history that a major food insecurity crisis is triggered far more by external, man-made factors, than it is by natural causes and, more specifically, the influence of the world market's cereal prices on this crisis is just enormous," Bracke said.

In addition, Bracke says the high cost of fuel is making food production and the transport of food more expensive. He says fluctuations in the U.S. dollar are negatively affecting the real value of remittances to many poor and impoverished households.

The Red Cross official says malnutrition rates in the region, which already are very high, are continuing to rise and this, he fears, will lead to increased child and maternal mortality.

Bracke says this is the first time the Red Cross has issued a five-year appeal, rather than a one-year appeal. He says this is being done to make sure full attention is given to issues of recovery as well as to emergency needs.

"If those people only receive food, then, yes, they will survive this crisis," he said. "But they will be even more vulnerable in six months from now when the next crisis strikes. So there is a very vital message that we are not aiming at the mere survival of people. But we are aiming at allowing them a life in dignity. More sustainable, so they can build up their ability to pay for their own food so that in six months from now we do not have to sit down again around the table because there is a new crisis."

The Red Cross humanitarian operation will take place in Djibouti, Ethiopia, Somalia and Kenya. It says Sudan is not part of the appeal because the country's food crisis is chronic and not linked to the drought. The Red Cross says the government of Eritrea has not asked for help because it still believes it can control the situation.

Roger Bracke says the focus of the emergency appeal will be food. But the operation also will include water and sanitation, and health. He says people will receive assistance with income generation programs to promote recovery and self-reliance.

Published with the permission of Voice of America
Published by Mike Hitchen, Mike Hitchen Consulting
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