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Department of Public Information . News and Media Division . New York

11 July 2008

The top United Nations humanitarian official called today for scaled-up efforts to address a severe humanitarian crisis in the Horn of Africa, caused by a combination of drought and soaring food and oil prices.

Speaking at a Headquarters press briefing this afternoon, John Holmes, Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator, said parts of Ethiopia, Somalia, Eritrea, Djibouti, Uganda and Kenya were in, or sliding rapidly towards, a humanitarian emergency, with some 14 million people in urgent need of food aid and other humanitarian assistance. The combination of drought and rising food and oil prices was crippling local agricultural production and putting the livelihoods of millions of people at risk. In some cases, the crisis was compounded by conflict and displacement.

He said a revised appeal would be issued next week for Ethiopia and Somalia as part of the general revision of the consolidated appeal, and efforts would be made to address properly the crisis in other countries. On 12 June, the Government and humanitarian agencies had revised humanitarian requirements for southern Ethiopia to more than $350 million. A joint assessment by the Government and international humanitarian partners had revealed that about 4.6 million people were now in need of emergency food support, an increase from 2.2 million in January-March this year. The total number included some 75,000 severely malnourished children in need of supplementary feeding, which was now being undertaken by the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) and key non-governmental organizations.

The new estimate was in addition to some 5.7 million people already targeted by the Government’s safety net programme for those suffering from chronic food insecurity, he said. The situation was further exacerbated by diseases, including acute watery diarrhoea, meningitis and measles. Emergency support was also needed for the agriculture and livestock sectors in order to regenerate food production. There were particular challenges in the Ethiopia’s Ogaden region, where food assistance was complicated by conflict.

He also described a dire situation in Somalia, where, in addition to drought and conflict, the price of imported rice had increased by 200 to 350 per cent between the beginning of 2007 and May 2008 due to a combination of increasing food prices and a devaluation of the Somali shilling. The number of vulnerable people in need of aid had risen by 40 per cent since January, to stand at 2.6 million. Internally displaced people also faced severe food shortages.

Kenya was in a less critical situation, but some 1.2 million were in need of emergency food assistance, particularly in the country’s north-western pastoral districts. There were also some “very serious concerns” in parts of the neighbouring north-eastern districts of Uganda, where the Government and the international humanitarian community were providing emergency humanitarian assistance to about 700,000 people, about 70 per cent of the local population. Eritrea was also suffering badly, as was Djibouti, where rainfall was currently below 50 per cent of the norm.

Under those circumstances, he said, it was important to scale up efforts to address the crisis, “to make sure that we can finance food and other emergency humanitarian assistance, to make sure we have the right pipeline in place, but also to make sure we have the right capacity in place”. In addition to emergency assistance, it was important to have a broader strategy to address the global food crisis and “re-boot” local agricultural production. There was also a need for various agencies and non-governmental organizations to ensure they had the capacity on the ground to provide the right kind of assistance to the vulnerable people.

Asked about the role that Gulf countries could play in that regard, he said he had visited the Gulf region in April to encourage countries benefiting from higher oil prices to increase their already generous humanitarian aid. Needs were rising around the world and there was a relationship between the food crisis and the price of fuel. Saudi Arabia had recently responded by contributing $500 million to the World Food Programme (WFP), and other countries in the region had been setting aside funds to deal with the problem. Hopefully, that response would continue and increase because it was important to widen the traditional donor base. Investment in the areas affected by the food crisis would also be very helpful.

Responding to a question about the withdrawal of Médecins sans frontières from the Ogaden region, he said the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) had been working with the Ethiopian Government for some time to ensure there was a substantial United Nations and non-governmental organization presence in the region. However, problems of access for non-governmental organizations continued, and the decision by Médecins sans frontières Switzerland reflected that.

Nevertheless, other non-governmental organizations, as well as United Nations agencies, were in the region conducting feeding operations, he said. “We cannot afford to simply pull out of there and leave the people to their fate. We have to do the best we can to help them and we have to work with the Government to do that.”

Asked to confirm humanitarian agencies’ financial losses through their use of the Government exchange rate in Myanmar, he said he had no knowledge of that. OCHA used a commercial exchange rate rather than the official exchange rate and there was a large difference between the two. There could be some losses when the value of foreign exchange certificates differed from that of the dollar, but the losses were relatively small and transitory.

In response to several other questions, he said he was not aware of a particular problem in Myanmar, but if OCHA felt it was being unduly penalized for bureaucratic reasons, it could argue for waiving normal rules for exchange rates, just as it would argue for waiving customs charges for humanitarian goods. In fact, one of the roles that OCHA could play involved negotiating on behalf of the humanitarian community on such issues as access, bureaucratic restrictions, customs charges and other regulations. That was done regularly in the Sudan and in most cases such efforts were “reasonably successful”, even if they did not always succeed. “But we are always trying to make the best deal,” he said.

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For information media • not an official record

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