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Press Conference by United Nations Children’s Fund on Horn of Africa Drought

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

14 September 2011

With staggering numbers of people in the drought-stricken Horn of Africa affected by — and on the run from — severe shortages of food and water, a senior official overseeing the response of the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) to the crisis said today that the United Nations was intensifying its efforts to save lives and livelihoods, while working with regional partners to help drought-prone countries avert future catastrophes.

“These are very difficult circumstances [on a scale] not seen in this region in more than a decade,” said Elhadj As Sy, Regional Director for Eastern and Southern Africa of UNICEF. Describing the dire situation at a Headquarters press conference, he said the region’s drought had deepened and food prices had soared against the backdrop of ongoing deadly fighting in Somalia.

All that had driven thousands of people from their homes in search of both safety and basic necessities. As a stark example of just how many people were on the move, he said that Kenya’s Dabab refugee camp — built to house just 80,000 people, now had a population of some 450,000. That camp, about 50 miles from Somalia’s border, had in the past few months become Kenya’s third largest “city,” he said, adding that Ethiopia and Djibouti were also hosting thousands of refugees.

With some 13 million people across the region impacted by the crisis, including some 750,000 directly affected by the spreading famine, he said “this is not only about saving lives because livelihoods are at stake.” Although UNICEF and other agencies were basing their information on solid field reports, the total figures could be higher, because they were certain that only those people healthy enough were making the trek to the camps; many more might be too sick to make the journey.

The majority of those affected were women and children, as well as pastoralists and farmers, and the erratic or failed rains could swing the region from drought to flood conditions and back again depending on the time of year, he said. “We are trying to do everything possible to reach people in need,” including by providing “safe spaces” and opening humanitarian corridors, he added.

Responding to questions, he said that UNICEF and other agencies were hoping that the next rainy season would bring good news, despite meteorologists’ pessimism. In any case, the United Nations would continue to scale up and maintain long-term humanitarian programmes. The Organization was also working with the African Union and the Intergovernmental Authority for Development (IGAD) to identify ways to invest in, among others, agriculture upgrades and infrastructure enhancements.

Continuing, he said the United Nations and its partners were also pursuing ways to promote water harvesting and implement modernized irrigation facilities so communities in the region were not totally dependent on rainwater to keep crops alive during dry spells. Humanitarian and development agencies were also helping East African countries bolster their coping mechanisms and identify the kinds of basic necessities or supplies that could be pre-positioned. Harvest times were cyclical, so preventive measures could and should be taken, he added.

While response to the United Nations initial emergency appeal had been “fantastic”, he said, with a 20 per cent funding gap remaining, he hoped partners would continue to support the call for aid “over the last mile”. While the United Nations “may not solve drought, may not solve the hunger situation, we are able to save as many lives as we can”. An encouraging example of its work had been the success of nutrition and education programmes now under way in the camps, which “are making miracles”.

He said he was also encouraged by the kindness and generosity of individuals and communities in the affected countries. Although they themselves were facing desperate circumstances, many were more than willing to share their own dwindling food and water supplies with people truly suffering or making the long journey to the camps. They were helping to alleviate the situation on the ground long before the arrival of humanitarian workers. “These are the true heroes in my opinion. They allow people to have some dignity and make our work easier,” he said.

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For information media • not an official record

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