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At the moment a big crisis is on going in the Horn of Africa (Ethiopia, Somalia, Djibouti, Kenya and Eritrea). The worst drought in 60 years has severe effects on the population. The stories are horrible and many people, especially many small children, die of hunger each day.


A lot of people run away to refugee camps in desperate hope for food, but unfortunately many do not survive this harsh and long journey; some are on their way by foot for more than three weeks without food or water. Others have to leave their children or relatives behind because they are too weak to continue. The crisis has the world’s attention and the UN officially declared a famine in the south of Somalia. But will the help arrive on time to save the lives of the 12 million people who are at high risk of starving of malnutrition?


Causes of the crisis


How can such a crisis happen? One of the main causes is the extreme drought and the lack of rainfall. In some parts of Somalia it has not rained in six years. Other aspects that have worsened the situation are the high food prices and the conflict in Somalia. For example the price of sorghum has soared 240% and maize has risen 40%. Crops do not grow and cattle are dying because of lack of pasture and lack of water. In this way farmers and pastoralists loose their income and it becomes more difficult to buy food because of the high food prices.


The area is mainly inhabited by nomadic communities. Their livestock (consisting of goat, sheep, donkey, cattle and camel) is their main form of wealth and provides them with food, building materials and cash earnings. One’s status in the community is based on the size of their herds and only when there is need for money, in example for food or veterinary drugs, the animals are sold. In general these people have no education and have besides their cattle, hardly any other possessions or income. Therefore losing their livestock is one of the worst things that can happen to them. People and animals get dehydrated due to the scarcity of water. People are forced to use the same water as their cattle; this together with a lack of good hygiene can cause water-borne diseases like diarrhoea and skin infections. Also the uncontrolled movement of humans and animals leads to an increase in the spread of diseases. One of these diseases is hydatid disease. This disease is transmitted from animals to humans by tapeworms that live in the intestines of dogs. The eggs of this parasite often stick to the fur of the dogs that wash in and drink from the same water as the people and their livestock. This way the parasite gets transferred and people fall ill. This disease can lead to a slow death if not treated.


In search for food


Since food and water is hard to find these days many people escape their country in search for it. Already weakened by diseases and hunger they try to reach the refugee camps across the border in Kenya. Unfortunately many die on their way during this harsh journey. Children are mostly affected.


Women and children often make this journey alone; men stay behind to take care of their cattle and their belongings. The escape journey is very difficult: walking for weeks without food or water and full of danger. Women and girls have a high risk of sexual harassment and rape during their journey. Children are weaker and easier susceptible to diseases and malnutrition. Also for pregnant women and sick people with HIV/AIDS the journey is often too much. Also HIV/TB patients are very vulnerable: they do not have enough food to take their medicines and once they have reached the refugee camp their treatment often stops. Many people are robbed on their way by bandits stealing everything they have carried with them.


Other people escape from the rural area of Somalia to the capital city of Mogadishu in the hope to find food. Unfortunately this city is occupied by rebels of the Al-Shabaab militia and it is hard for aid workers like to UN/World Food Programme (WFP) to reach the city with food supplies. The UN's World Food Programme (WFP) has begun to airlift emergency food supplies to Somalia. The first flight, with 10 tons of nutritional supplements for children, has landed in the capital Mogadishu on the 27th of July. Challiss McDonough, a spokeswoman for the WFP, said the 10 tons of Plumpy'Nut, a peanut-based paste high in protein and energy, would be enough to treat 3,500 malnourished children for one month.


Combating malnutrition


One of the main affects caused by the drought is malnutrition, especially amongst small children. According to the World Health Organization, malnutrition is by far the biggest contributor to child mortality, present in half of all cases. Malnutrition in the first two years is irreversible and malnourished children grow up with worse health and lower educational achievements and their own children also tend to be smaller.


Fortifying foods such as peanut butter sachets (Plumpy'Nut) and Spirulina have revolutionized emergency feeding in humanitarian emergencies because they can be eaten directly from the packet, do not require refrigeration or mixing with scarce clean water can be stored for years and can be absorbed by extremely ill children. Additionally, supplements, such as Vitamin A capsules or Zinc tablets to cure diarrhea in children, are used.

The WFP is delivering special fortified food for malnourished children by airlifts in Mogadishu. In a special feeding centre meals are served to refugees and RUSF (ready to use supplementary foods) such as “Plumpy’Nut”, for children, It is important that these nutritious foods reach these children fast to be able to save their lives. Also pregnant and breastfeeding mothers get special food.

People get their food and eat it at the centres because it might be dangerous to take this with them.


Refugee camps


Besides air droppings of food in the city of Mogadishu, refugees are helped when reaching a refugee camp. One of the refugee camps many people escape to is Daadab in North Eastern Kenya. This camp is located about 100 kilometers from the Kenya-Somalia border. The camp has a capacity of 90,000 people but was occupied with 440,000 refugees in July this year. With about 1,300 arrivals each day this is the largest refugee camp in the world. There are actually three other camps around Daadab, named Dagahaley, Ifo and Hagadera, consisting of a mass of shelters that are made of twigs, reeds and scraps.


Unfortunately these camps are overcrowded now and newcomers have to stay outside the camp without security. They have no proper shelter in a dry, dusty and windy area; it is difficult to obtain food and water and only access to few health facilities. Refugees are forced to built there own shelter made from tree branches covered with pieces of clothes. There are no latrines making going to the toilet in the open the only option and in this way increasing the spread of diseases. Without the protection of the camp safety is an issue and women are an easy target for sexual violence.


The exhausted, often sick, hungry and thirsty refugees who arrive at the camps receive medical healthcare and three week food rations, some blankets, cooking utensils and jerry cans for water. The 21 day food rations contain corn-soya blend, cereals, pulses, vegetable oil and salt. Malnourished children and pregnant and nursing mothers are put on supplementary feeding programs. Those that are severely malnourished are admitted to hospitals.


Inside the camp the overcrowding also causes problems like gender based violence, and diseases caused by lack of hygiene (not enough toilets) and fast spreading of disease. Since many HIV/TB patients stop taking their medicines while in the camps, the risk of spreading these diseases is high. Children do not go to school and miss their education. Unfortunately many persons especially (malnourished children) die daily in the refugee camps, because help came too late.




A lot of NGO’s working in the horn of Africa are taking extra measures to help the victims of the crisis. One of the organizations is AMREF. This NGO helped in cooperation with other NGO’s delivering five tons of food and medical supplies in Daadab. The food consisted mainly of milk formula and ready made food for babies. Furthermore medical infusion kits, naso-gastric tubes, energy drinks for pregnant and breastfeeding mothers were donated to one of the hospitals in the camp. Since many NGO’s already work in the camps the health organization focuses more on people in other dry areas such as Turkana, Samburu, Kajiado, Lamu to make sure that the situation in these areas does not deteriorate to an emergency crisis level.


The organization focuses on delivering clean water to the communities living in the areas troubled by drought. In these areas there is an increase in malnutrition and starvation especially amongst women and children, water-born and infectious diseases, including diarrhea and measles.


Boreholes are being repaired and water purification tablets are handed out to the communities. In this case many water and sanitation related diseases (such as diarrhea, trachoma and malaria) can be prevented. Food supplementation programs are set up to keep children in school. Furthermore vitamin A supplements are handed out and de-worming cures offered. More outreach clinics will be established so vulnerable populations (small children, pregnant women and HIV patients) will have access to healthcare. An extra medical camp at Kaikoko health centre in the hard hit Turkana area in North Kenya is established. This medical camp will provide healthcare to the communities, distribute supplements and food and provide water treatment supplies to the communities.


How to help?


Help is finally coming to the people who escaped the drought and had to leave everything behind. Many lives are saved this way. For the people staying behind in the dry areas (also outside the most struck area of Somalia) help is coming too and the focus is on keeping the situation stable so people can stay and the situation will not get worse. Still a lot of money is needed to provide the people with enough food, medicines and shelter, but also to invest in access to clean water. You can help by financially supporting AMREF and/or other NGO’s in their work fighting the hunger in the Horn of Africa. For more information, see: and


*Jacqueline Lampe is director of AMREF Flying Doctors in the Netherlands.

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