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Drought in E. Africa adds to malnutrition concerns

By EDITH MUTETHYA in Nairobi, Kenya | China Daily Global | Updated: 2023-05-24 10:15

A medic checks on a toddler admitted at the Lodwar County Referral Hospital in Somalia on Sept 26. TONY KARUMBA/AFP

More than 1.9 million children under the age of 5 are at risk of dying from severe malnutrition in the Horn of Africa, and 7 million others remain malnourished and in need of urgent nutrition support, the United Nations Children's Fund has warned.

Communities across Kenya, Ethiopia and Somalia have lost cattle, crops and entire livelihoods over the past three years of failed rains, as the region battled one of the worst droughts in 40 years, the UN agency said on Monday.

The number of severely malnourished children seeking treatment in the first quarter of this year is higher than last year, and will likely remain high for quite a while, it said.

"The crisis in the Horn of Africa has been devastating for children," Mohamed Fall, UNICEF regional director for Eastern and Southern Africa, said.

"Over the past three years, communities have been forced to take extreme measures to survive, with millions of children and families leaving their homes out of pure desperation in search of food and water."

The crisis has deprived children of the essentials of childhood — having enough to eat, a home, safe water and going to school, Fall said.

Some 23 million people are facing high levels of acute food insecurity across the region, UNICEF said.

Although rains have brought some reprieve, they also have led to floods, because the parched ground is unable to absorb large quantities of water, leading to further displacement, increased risk of disease, livestock loss and crop damage.

Flooding has deepened the vulnerability of populations already highly affected by the drought as the areas most affected by flooding and drought overlap.

"The rains have brought some relief and hope, but also new threats, and recovery doesn't happen overnight," Fall said.

"It takes time for crops and herds to grow again, for families to recover from years of hardship. That's why continued support is still critical."

In Somalia, floods have damaged homes, farmland and roads, and washed away livestock and led to closures of schools and health facilities.

"Initial estimates indicate that the flash and riverine floods across Somalia have affected at least 460,470 people, of whom nearly 219,000 have been displaced from their homes, and 22 killed," UNICEF said.

Major outbreaks

The Horn of Africa is also experiencing major outbreaks including cholera, measles, malaria and other diseases, worsened by extreme weather conditions and fragile health systems.

Ethiopia, for instance, is experiencing the longest cholera outbreak ever recorded in the country.

Additionally, food prices remain high in local markets, burdening children and families. The climate crisis is compounding the severity of the situation, worsening mass displacement, malnutrition and diseases.

"With the extreme weather cycles that we see today in the Horn of Africa, the next crisis may hit before children and families have had a chance to recover," Fall said.

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