About 29,000 Somali children have died as famine rakes the Horn of Africa in the worst humanitarian crisis in a generation, US officials said on Wednesday, pleading for global partners to urgently step up aid.
Despite the dire warnings and images of starving children coming out of the region, and especially war-torn Somalia, the international community has been slow in coming forward with aid.
People in Somalia are suffering the most due to the instability caused by a 20-year civil war and because al-Qaeda-linked Shebab militants have been blocking aid to starving Somalis and preventing them from fleeing to neighboring Ethiopia or Kenya to escape the famine.
“Based on nutrition and mortality surveys ... we estimate that more than 29,000 children under the age of five — nearly 4 percent of children — have died in the last 90 days in southern Somalia,” US Agency for International Development assistant administrator Nancy Lindborg told lawmakers.
“It is the most severe humanitarian crisis in a generation, affecting food security for more than 12 million people across Somalia, Ethiopia, Kenya, Djibouti and surrounding areas,” US Senator Chris Coons said as he opened the hearing.
The UN estimates that 3.2 million people in Somalia require “immediate, life-saving humanitarian assistance,” Lindborg said.
All but 400,000 of Somalis in urgent need live in the south of the country, which is controlled by Shebab and other militant groups.
An estimated 2,000 Somalis are pouring into refugee camps in Ethiopia and Kenya each day seeking to escape famine and war, officials said at the hearing.
“Brief visits to the health clinics in the refugee camps revealed dozens of malnourished children, so emaciated and weak that they appeared close to death,” US Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Reuben Brigety said.
According to the UN Children’s Fund, about 2.3 million children in the Horn of Africa are acutely malnourished and half a million are at death’s door because of the drought and famine.
The UN said the famine had spread to three new regions of Somalia, including the capital, Mogadishu, and the world’s largest camp for displaced people, and warned that it could affect the entire south within four to six weeks. Last month, the world body had declared famine in the southern Bakool and Lower Shabelle regions.
But while the famine is expected to worsen and eventually dwarf the 1984 famine in Ethiopia, which claimed nearly 1 million lives, the public is not stepping up to try to help as it did nearly 30 years ago, when the international community responded to the crisis with fundraisers like Live Aid.
Coons said only half of the US$2 billion that the UN has said is needed to provide emergency assistance for famine relief in the Horn of Africa has been committed, with the US the largest single donor, pledging US$459 million.
Jeremy Konyndyk, director of policy and advocacy at the non-profit Mercy Corps, said the world community has yet to recognize the severity of the crisis and called for more global aid to end the “truly desperate situation” in east Africa.
“We’re seeing just a fraction of the engagement and the level of resources that we saw after the Haiti earthquake, for example,” Konyndyk said, even though more people have been affected by the famine in the Horn of Africa than make up the total population of Haiti.