22 August 2011

East Africa: Food Insecurity Continent's Worst in 20 Years

press release

Washington — The worst drought in more than half a century in Eastern Africa has brought on the region's worst food insecurity in 20 years, according to an assessment of conditions in the region released by the Food Security and Nutrition Analysis Unit-Somalia (FSNAU), a project funded jointly by the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) and the European Commission.

"The current situation represents Africa's worst food security crisis since Somalia's 1991-1992 famine," according to an August 16 FSNAU report. The report further predicts that the critical food needs will persist until at least December 2011.

U.S. and international estimates find that more than 12 million people in this region are expected to be affected by the widespread food insecurity.

Famine conditions were first declared in two regions of southern Somalia a month ago, and now food insecurity has reached the level of famine in three other areas of Somalia, notably the capital, Mogadishu. The FSNAU assessment, compiled with information from food experts in the regions, finds that 3.7 million people are in a state of food crisis, and that 3.2 million people need immediate lifesaving assistance.

Lack of rain has cracked the earth and killed the animals, and tens of thousands of Somalis have left their lands to seek assistance in the capital. About 700,000 other Somalis have crossed international borders to refugee camps in Kenya, Ethiopia and Djibouti. Drought is also widespread in these countries, where native populations are themselves under stress for resources as they attempt to accommodate desperate Somali refugees and the international donors who have converged on the region to attempt assistance.

USAID is among the major players in the relief effort, and has been responsible for the distribution of some $580 million in U.S. assistance to provide food, medicine and shelter to Africans struggling to survive this crisis.

The U.S.-backed Famine Early Warning Systems Network (FEWS NET) forecast the drought and predicted the famine as much as a year ago, allowing USAID and other donors to preposition food in the region to be ready for the mounting urgency of food insecurity.

But along with hunger, sickness comes all too frequently. As stores and food supplies have grown scarcer or impossibly costly, many in the region are developing malnutrition. In this physically compromised condition, the Somalis walk sometimes hundreds of miles to reach a refugee camp in neighboring countries.

They find camps exceeding capacity, with little water and poor sanitation facilities, providing the perfect breeding ground for infectious diseases. Both cholera and measles have stricken the region, according to the latest bulletin on World Health Organization (WHO) efforts in the region.

Cases of measles increased in July more than sixfold, compared with a similar period in 2010. WHO and other health agencies have launched an emergency vaccination campaign in South and Central Somalia, attempting to reach 2.3 million children with vaccines.

Almost 4,700 cholera cases have been confirmed in Mogadishu and other regions, with children under 5 accounting for 75 percent of the cases.

"WHO's major concern is to monitor and detect new disease outbreaks in the many informal settlements set up by internally displaced people in and around Mogadishu," according to the latest WHO bulletin. "These informal settlements are a major challenge to the few health service providers who also have limited operational capacity."

Amidst this sheaf of sobering reports, USAID does foresee a couple of good breaks by year's end. While conditions may get worse until October, the prospect for a Kenyan harvest is at near-normal output in the key agricultural areas of the Rift Valley, Nyanza and the Western provinces, where rainfall has been near normal. The yields for the season could reach near-normal levels, according to an August 22 USAID report, with a downward trend in maize prices.

Looking toward the next rainy season, October to December, the USAID report says that if the rains reach normal levels, food security conditions would be expected to improve.

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