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Press Conference by Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs on Her Visit to Drought-hit Eastern Africa, 17 February 2011

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

The top United Nations humanitarian official today drew attention to ongoing crises in two Eastern African countries — Kenya and neighbouring strife-torn Somalia — where failed rains and worsening droughts were putting pressure on millions of beleaguered people across a region in no position to bear added anguish.

At a press conference on her first visit to the region as Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs, Valerie Amos said that after more than two decades of instability, Somalia, home to one of the world’s largest internally displaced populations, once again found itself “teetering on the brink of a much larger disaster” due to the threat of a country-wide drought.

Ms. Amos, who is also the United Nations Emergency Relief Coordinator, said a La Nina-style weather event had kicked in during the summer months, setting in motion a domino effect of extremely worrying trends. Inadequate rainfall had wrecked crops in Somalia’s southern and central agricultural zones, malnutrition had increased in the south and the lives and livelihoods of some 2.4 million people, or 32 per cent of the population, were at risk. A “significant number” of people already in crisis situations were living in drought-affected regions controlled by armed opposition groups.

The Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs was extremely concerned that internal displacement and conflict over scarce resources might increase quickly, she said, adding that significant numbers of people were already on the move from urban centres in Hiran and Shabelle towards Kenya due to deteriorating conditions and their inability to make a living. “Families are said to be selling their assets, including their houses and land, just to get by or facilitate moving to refugee camps in Kenya,” she added.

She said that on her way to Puntland on 2 February to look at the relief operation on the ground and assess the challenges facing the humanitarian community, she had spoken to people at a camp in Galkayo who all clearly appeared anxious to find work, build homes and educate their children. “I cannot stress enough the importance in Somalia of finding a political solution,” she said. “Only that will enable the people [of the country] to live in peace and dignity.”

Turning to the situation in Kenya, she said she had looked into that country’s preparedness for the myriad impacts of climate change and environment-related emergencies, the situation of the approximately 30,000 people internally displaced by post-election violence in 2007/2008, and that of refugees who had fled the crisis in Somalia. The influx of refugees into Kenya continued to rise and their number now stood “north of 430,000”, with most living in overcrowded camps. “Increased assistance for the growing number of refugees is needed, as is aid for communities hosting [them],” she said, adding further that Kenya needed to find durable solutions to its own internal displacement problems and to ensure that all displaced people were re-settled before the 2012 electoral season.

Just as in Somalia, she said the current drought was affecting food security in the adjacent northern and eastern parts of Kenya. Indeed, drought had been the most constant driver of that country’s humanitarian needs, she added. “We will continue to work with the Kenyan Government to strengthen its preparedness and enhance its resilience to shocks.” Looking at the broader picture, she said it was important to remember what was happening in that part of the world. “Behind every statistic, there is a human face, and we must continue to do everything we can to give support to the most vulnerable people in both countries.”

Responding to questions, she said ongoing insecurity and instability were exacerbating the situation in Somalia by sparking large population flows. Indeed, in many parts of the country “it’s quite difficult for people to settle down” and families were often uprooted more than once. While the United Nations had access to quite a large portion of the country through local civil society organizations working on the ground, south and central Somalia were controlled by opposition groups, making access more difficult. She added that malnutrition rates had risen over the past six months, but the true picture of the depth of that element of the crisis would become clearer if the rains failed again in April.

She said all stakeholders recognized the complex set of issues at play in Somalia: a fragile security situation, violence by armed opposition groups and lack of Government control over the entire country. At a recent meeting in the region, the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD) had sent to the African Union and the wider international community the message that Somalia’s Transitional Federal Government should continue after its term ended in August.

To a question about rebel-controlled areas, she replied that the food security crisis was more acute in such places. The drought was having an impact, but instability was also affecting pastoralists and farmers, she said, adding that she had been shocked to discover “that there is nothing green for sale in the markets in Puntland”.

Asked about issues beyond Africa, she said the United Nations had published a response plan amounting to $1.9 billion for flood-ravaged Pakistan — to address immediate needs, assist with early recovery and help people improve and rebuild livelihoods. She said there was a feeling that the international community was not doing enough, or that the Government was incapable of addressing the problem because in some areas, especially Sindh Province, it had taken much longer for the waters to recede.

The Government believed the emergency phase was over and that the focus now must be on long-term recovery, she said. The Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs believed that as the transition from relief to recovery got under way, it must be smooth and efficient, and maintain some focus on those in Sind Province and elsewhere who were still in need of emergency assistance. Perhaps the floods had uncovered some desperate needs, such as malnutrition; the United Nations would need acknowledgement from the Government that tackling it was a priority, she explained.

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