TOPICS > World

Drought Plagues Horn of Africa

March 29, 2006 at 12:00 AM EDT


JEFFREY BROWN: We are in a full-scale crisis right now, the words of a U.N. official on a catastrophe affecting at least 7.5 million people in the Horn of Africa; countries in the worst danger are Somalia, Kenya, Ethiopia and Djibouti. We start with a report from Katie Razzall of Independent Television News.

KATIE RAZZALL, ITV News Correspondent: The most vulnerable are the most at risk. Already, children are dying across East Africa. Without help, these could be next.

Save the Children’s new appeal asks for less than half a million pounds, but the world has so far been deaf to pleas from here.

Isolated lawless Somalia in particularly dire need, where pictures out of the country illustrate its plight: a land that’s dry at the best of times, now a dust bowl.

The animals, the first to go. And with that, the livelihood of the people. East Africa should be preparing for the migration of the wildebeest, the biggest movement of wildlife in the world. Instead, it’s the people who are moving.

DROUGHT VICTIM (through translator): We have five children. We have ten cows, 30 goats and sheep. We lost all of them in the drought. We came here to get food and water. As long as the situation does not change, we’ll stay here.

KATIE RAZZALL: The statistics are bold and shocking. Almost half the people at risk of malnutrition in the worst hit areas surviving on three cups of water a day, trekking 40 miles to the nearest water in 40 degree heat, all this in a country whose president was overthrown 15 years ago, where aid agencies are hampered by warlords and hijacks.

PASCAL HUNDT, Head of Somali Operation, Red Cross: The situation is really, really serious when you take the combination of the conflict and the drought, and the response is urgently required. Definitely people will have to be supported until the next rainy season, until the next harvest that is taking place in July. If we have again a rain failure, then the situation will be really looking like a disaster.

KATIE RAZZALL: Across East Africa, reminders of the seriousness of the situation, every drop of water vital. Only a third of the requested international food aid has materialized so far.

Here in Northern Kenya, severely malnourished children struggle in soaring temperatures. There’s no room for them at the hospital. Inside, this little boy died just an hour after he was filmed, his grandmother trying to close his eyes, longing, she said, for him to find the peace that only death can bring.

JEFFREY BROWN: For more on the emergency and the international response, we turn to James Morris, executive director of the U.N. World Food Program. He was in Kenya earlier this month.

Mr. Morris, the words I quoted at the top were yours, “We are in a full-scale crisis right now.” You were there recently. Tell us what you saw.

JAMES MORRIS, World Food Program: Well, Jeff, I saw very, very serious circumstances with millions of people severely at risk. This is a part of the world, under the best of circumstances, where life is harsh, maybe, of a level environment, maybe the harshest place in the world.

You see thousands and thousands of pastoralists who have lost their entire herds and, in doing so, lose their livelihoods. Along the border with Somalia and Kenya, there is no agricultural production whatsoever.

This is a part of the world that depends completely on rain and now, for 10 years in a row, a steady downward trend in rain production and virtually no rain this year, the worst in 10 years.

JEFFREY BROWN: So should this be seen first and foremost as a food crisis largely due to those natural causes?

JAMES MORRIS: Well, it’s a food crisis because people have no place else to turn for, you know, their sustenance to address their hunger, their nutritional needs. There is no capacity internally to address the issue, and it must be helped externally.

Now, long term, this is a serious crisis of livelihoods. The pastoralists have lived as nomads for hundreds, maybe thousands of years. I don’t know how you go about rebuilding the situation.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, tell us about the effort that is under way in the short term by governments and by aid organizations; what’s being done?

JAMES MORRIS: Well, we’re looking at feeding somewhere between 6 and 7 million people in Ethiopia, in Djibouti, in Kenya, and Somalia. The number in the north, in the northeast part of Kenya, is 3 1/2 million people, at a cost of about $225 million U.S. dollars. We will need to bring in about 33,000 tons of food a month.

Across the border in Somalia, where the issues are equally difficult, further compounded by very tough circumstances of violence, and security, and conflict, we will be prepared to feed between 1 1/2 and 2 million people, with help from CARE and the Red Cross.

JEFFREY BROWN: And where does the food come from? And how hard is it to get to the people most in need?

JAMES MORRIS: Well, these are very remote locations. The transport of the food is enormously difficult, complicated and expensive. We’re grateful that the government of Kenya has given us 60,000 tons of food early this year.

Traditionally, we’ve been able to move food through the ports of Somalia. But we’ve had really very unhappy circumstances with pirates in the Indian Ocean, off the coast of Somalia, which means we have to bring the food in overland, and so about half of what we have we’ll buy in the region and half will be brought in from elsewhere.

JEFFREY BROWN: Is this a case where it’s still early enough that you feel you can intervene and make a big difference before this becomes a full-scale famine?

JAMES MORRIS: Yes, I think famine is a very strong word. If the international community did not respond and if we were not capable of delivering the food, all the conditions are there for huge loss of life. But my hope is and my expectation is that the international community will provide resources so that food will be available.

There has been a loss of life, and there are people that are very, very vulnerable. It literally breaks your heart to see it. But we can prevent a huge loss of life; that need not occur.

The sadness is that, when you look at children under the age of five, about a third of the children in Kenya or in Somalia are acutely malnourished. And, you know, the infant mortality rates and the under-five death rates of children sort of one in five, over a period of five years, and these are kids that are very vulnerable and don’t have much capacity to resist these terrible shocks.

JEFFREY BROWN: Are there things that people watching this can do, if they want to help?

JAMES MORRIS: Sure. Well, I would encourage people to help with CARE or Catholic Relief or the International Red Cross. Clearly, they can look at the World Food Program’s Web page and can make contributions.

We have a huge commitment to feed children. When I was in El Wat (ph) last week, I visited a school of 500 students. Given the way the pastoralists are coming, the school enrollments are going up, and oftentimes parents send their children to school because they know they will get a good meal.

But there is nothing more important than seeing that children are fed, have a chance to go to school, and that very young children are well-nourished and born and nursed by healthy mothers. And we know how to do that with our partners.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, James Morris of the UN World Food Program, thank you very much.

JAMES MORRIS: Thanks, Jeff.