Voice of America (Washington, DC)

12 June 2014

Djibouti Reeling From Several Years of Drought

The United Nations has launched a two-year, multi-million-dollar appeal to help one-quarter-million people in the tiny East African country of Djibouti recover from several years of persistent, recurring drought. The U.N. seeks $74 million for 2014 to break out of the country's ongoing cycle of crises.

Two weeks ago, two Somali suicide bombers blew themselves up along with a Turkish man in a café frequented by foreigners in Djibouti's capital city. The international media devoted little coverage to the story, underlining how overlooked and neglected this tiny country in the Horn of Africa is by the rest of the world.

This is a major problem for nearly one-quarter of Djibouti's population of 850,000 - some 250,000 people who are seriously affected by more than four years of consecutive drought.

U.N. Resident Coordinator in Djibouti Robert Watkins is in Geneva to get international donors to pay attention to their plight and to support plans to help them emerge from this crisis.

He says malnutrition rates have increased to 18 percent, which exceeds the emergency threshold of 15 percent. In some areas, he says malnutrition is as high as 26 percent and the rate of chronic malnutrition is 30 percent. In addition, he says 60 percent of the rural population is suffering from malaria and diarrheal diseases.

"It is still a very traditional, nomadic population and the livestock has been very dramatically affected by the drought, with stocks continuing to go down," he said "It is a drought deficit that has accumulated over the last four years and it is also resulting in a huge exodus of people living in rural areas to the capital city. The population has almost tripled in the capital city. Now, 85 percent of the population is now living in the capital city."

Watkins says the city's facilities are overwhelmed by this huge rural influx as well as by the large numbers of mainly Ethiopian migrants that transit through Djibouti on their way to Yemen. Most of the migrants use Yemen as a portal to reach other countries in the Middle East.

Last year, about 100,000 migrants arrived in Djibouti. Watkins says many of them are in desperate condition and in need of medical care. He says this puts great pressure on the country's limited medical resources.

Djibouti's economy grew by five percent last year, but most of the population does not benefit from that growth. The country's income mainly comes from renting out military bases to the United States and France and from large investments for expanding the ports and building a railroad to Ethiopia.

U.N. Coordinator Watkins tells VOA the two-year strategic plan goes beyond food and health care humanitarian projects. He says it deals with more developmental projects. The aim is to address the root causes so people will be better equipped to tackle the effects of drought.

"The biggest issue facing Djibouti today is the lack of water," he said. "People depend on water for their livelihoods, essentially for their livestock... So, we are doing a lot of projects and so there is less waste of water."

Nearly half of Djibouti's population is unemployed. Watkins says the strategic plan will try to address this problem in various ways. For one, the U.N. will try to reconstitute the livestock, which has been lost. But, equally important, he says is to find alternative ways for people to make a living. He says training people in the skills needed to work in the ports is one of the plans being developed.

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