UN urges ‘massive’ action on Horn of Africa drought

The United Nations has  urged a “massive” effort to save millions of people in the drought-stricken Horn of Africa, as France said donor countries would meet in Nairobi this week to step up aid pledges.

“The catastrophic situation demands massive and urgent international aid,” said Jacques Diouf, head of the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO),  at the start of emergency talks on the crisis his agency is hosting in Rome.

“It is imperative to stop the famine,”  Diouf added, after the United Nations declared a famine in two insurgent-held areas of southern Somalia.

And the UN’s World Food Programme (WFP) announced at the talks that it would begin an airlift of food aid into the Somali capital Mogadishu on Tuesday.

An estimated 3.7 million people in Somalia — around a third of the population — are on the brink of starvation and millions more in Djibouti, Ethiopia, Kenya and Uganda have been struck by the worst drought in the region in 60 years.

UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon has appealed to donor countries to come up immediately with $1.6 billion (1.1 billion euros) in aid for Somalia alone.

French Agriculture Minister Bruno Le Maire said at the meeting that donor countries would hold talks in Nairobi on Wednesday.

“If we don’t take the necessary measures, famine will be the scandal of this century,” Le Maire said. He also berated the international community for having “failed” to ensure food security in a world affected by climate change.

UN officials say the drought has killed tens of thousands of people in recent months, forcing hundreds of thousands of desperate survivors from the worst-affected areas of Somalia to walk for weeks in search of food and water.

“If we don’t act now, this famine will spread to the rest of Somalia and neighboring countries,” said Valerie Amos, head of the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA).

“We must respond now, before it gets worse. This will not be a short crisis, it will go on for at least six months,” she said.

The key challenge for aid groups has been reaching parts of southern Somalia held by the Al Qaeda-inspired Islamist militia group Shebab, which has banned WFP and other international humanitarian agencies from operating on its territory.

“The fundamental cause of the famine that has so suddenly created devastation for the Somali people is the fragility of the state and the enduring conflict,” Somali Deputy Prime Minister Mohamed Ibrahim told the conference.

“More than 3.5 million Somalis, the vast majority of them in the insurgent-held areas, may starve to death unless emergency aid reaches them in the next few weeks,” he said.

WFP chief Josette Sheeran said her organisation would begin food airlifts on Tuesday into Mogadishu, as well as aid flights to Dolo in Ethiopia on the border with Somalia and to Wajir in northern Kenya, which has been badly hit by drought.

“We need the commitments to keep coming,” Sheeran told aid chiefs.

Live Aid organiser and Irish rocker Bob Geldof meanwhile joined activists in urging the international community to come up with more aid for famine victims, in a letter published on Monday ahead of the meeting in Rome.  Geldof and other celebrities including actress Kristin Scott Thomas attacked countries such as France, Germany, Italy and Arab states, accusing them of having “so far given miniscule amounts of money to prevent people dying from hunger.”

Barbara Stocking, the director of Oxfam, told the meeting: “To all of us, including myself and any aid agency involved in this, it is really shameful that we have reached this position because we do know what to do.”

“We have not had the investment in small producers across the world that was expected… The money has simply not come through,” she said.  “Often it feels as if the donor community is prepared to be very generous when it comes to this crisis but is simply not prepared to commit to the longer term.”

The meeting will address not only immediate aid, but long-term solutions for the crisis — such as assistance to livestock farmers, the introduction of more drought-resistant crops and measures to control food price volatility.

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