The humanitarian disaster unfolding in East Africa took another step towards catastrophe this week with the United Nations declaring a famine two regions of southern Somalia thanks to the worst drought in decades.

More than 12 million people in the region are now experiencing a severe food crisis including 3.7 million people in Somalia – half of the country’s population. Hundreds of thousands of people have already fled Somalia to Ethiopia and Kenya – themselves badly affected by the drought - where refugee camps are already overflowing.

“Every day of delay in assistance is literally a matter of life or death for children and their families in the famine-affected areas."

- Mark Bowden, the UN’s humanitarian co-ordinator for Somalia.

It is the first time since the devastating famine of 1991-92 that part of the country has been declared to be in famine – a designation reached when acute malnutrition rates among children exceed 30 per cent, more than two people per 10,000 are dying every day and people are unable to access food and other basic necessities.

Appealing for urgent resources to help the millions of people in desperate need this week, Mark Bowden, the UN’s humanitarian co-ordinator for Somalia.

“Every day of delay in assistance is literally a matter of life or death for children and their families in the famine-affected areas,” he said.

Mr Bowden said malnutrition rates in Somalia are currently the highest in the world, peaking at 50 per cent of people in some areas in the country’s south. In some parts of southern Bakool and Lower Shabelle, acute malnutrition rates have reached higher than 30 per cent while deaths among children aged under five have exceeded six per 10,000 per day.

The UN says the aid response if still $US800 million below what is required.

In Australia, Oxfam’s executive director Andrew Hewett says there has been a “catastrophic breakdown of the world's collective responsibility to act” in the face of the looming disaster. 

“An exodus of 3,500 people a day are fleeing Somalia and arriving in parts of Ethiopia and Kenya that are suffering one of the driest years in six decades,” he says. 

“Food, water and emergency aid are desperately needed. By the time the UN calls it a famine it is already a signal of large scale loss of life. We must now ensure that aid comes quickly to prevent people dying in massive numbers."

Alistair McGee, executive director of Act for Peace, the international aid agency of the National Council of Churches in Australia, says the situation is of "grave concern". 

“We are especially concerned about the long-term impact of this drought in causing further instability to countries that are already devastated by decades of conflict,” he says. “Act for Peace is committed to long-term engagement to improve food security and address issues of protracted conflict.”

World Vision chief executive Tim Costello last week described the emergency as “one of the worst in decades”.

“Much of the western world is focused on the risk of a return to a second global financial crisis but we cannot ignore the needs of millions of children whose lives may be at stake.”

The Australian Government has so far pledge $41.2 million help the people affected by the drought crisis in East Africa.


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