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Horn of Africa crisis Q & A
(07 June 2006)
Girl waits in queue at IR assessment centre
Questions about the food crisis

Q: Why is there a food crisis?

A: The Horn of Africa countries - Ethiopia, Kenya, Somalia, Eritrea and Djibouti - have all suffered from many years of poor rainfall. Somalia has endured prolonged droughts over the past 4 years and Ethiopia has had 5 major droughts in the last two decades.

In 2005 the failure of the rains destroyed crops and pasture yet again. Without drinking water or vegetation, herds of livestock died in their thousands. This left people without food and nothing to sell to buy any.

Q: Is it a famine?

A: No. The word ‘famine’ is a technical term used only for specific situations with huge numbers of people dying each day due to a lack of food and a breakdown in the society’s coping mechanisms.

In the Horn of Africa analysts have identified ‘pre-famine markers’ raising fears that the food crisis could develop into a famine. Problems like rising malnutrition, extreme shortages of food and water, migration to urban areas and an increase in disease indicate that the situation is very serious.

Q: Who is affected?

A: An estimated 2.6 million people are affected in Ethiopia, 3.5 million in Kenya and 2.1 million in Somalia, with many already depending on food aid for survival. Worst affected are the nomadic pastoral communities who make up around 50% of the population and rely on their livestock for survival.

Many families have now lost so many animals that they may never be able to replace them. The crisis threatens an entire way of life as families are forced to migrate to urban areas in search of food and water.

Q: Why are livestock so important?

A: Livestock are central to the nomadic pastoralist way of life. Nomads move with their animals to pastures throughout the year and rely entirely on their animals for meat, milk and an income. Families who once owned 100 cattle are now trying to sustain just 5 or 6 animals. After these massive losses it may take years before herds are rebuilt to a sustainable level.

For the pastoralists their livestock are not only the foundation of their self-reliance but they are also fundamental to social organisation and an individual’s sense of worth.

Q: Will the rains solve everything?

A: No. Since early April there have been varying degrees of rainfall but this does not mean the problems are over. For some, the rain has made things worse.

In many parts of the region heavy rains caused widespread flooding and swept away surviving livestock and crops. Flooding also blocked roads, displaced tens of thousands of people from their homes, and prevented emergency aid from reaching people.

Flood waters have also led to an increase in waterborne diseases and for weak animals, the sudden drop in night-time temperatures has caused many more deaths.

The region needs an estimated three months of steady rain in order for harvests to return to normal levels. However, more flash flooding could prove fatal for both humans and animals.

Q: What can be done to help?

A: Right now we must respond to the immediate needs of the people for food and water aid across the region. Malnutrition, which is most acute in young children and expectant and nursing mothers, must be reversed to prevent thousands of deaths.

In the long-term however, food aid is not the solution. Communities need support to develop resilient livelihoods to reduce overall poverty and their vulnerability to disasters.

Q: What is Islamic Relief doing on the ground?

A: Islamic Relief is working in Kenya, Ethiopia and more recently Somalia, to tackle the immediate effects of the drought and food shortages on the local communities. Islamic Relief’s main priorities are reducing malnutrition amongst children, providing safe drinking water and health care facilities.

Supplementary feeding centres have been set up, emergency food is being distributed and ambulances are being provided to take malnourished children to hospital. To ensure access to safe drinking water, Islamic Relief is providing emergency water supplies and also purifying water through water treatment stations. Islamic Relief has also established primary health care and sanitation services to help prevent and treat infectious diseases.

In the long-term, Islamic Relief will work with communities on sustainable development programmes aimed at reducing their vulnerability to disasters.

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