Horn of Africa: 60 babies are dying every day

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Some 60 babies are dying each day in one camp. Every 24 hours, more than 3,000 malnourished people arrive at camps already too crowded to accommodate them. The lives of half a million children are at imminent risk. And, in total, no fewer than 12 million people are fighting for their very survival.

These are the dry, statistical facts of life – and, increasingly, death – in the Horn of Africa this weekend. Behind them are uncountable numbers of human trials and tragedies: Somali children arriving at refugee camps so weak that they are dying within a day, despite receiving emergency care and food; the tens of thousands a week, like Somalian Hawo Ibrahim and her seven children, who trekked for 15 days before reaching a refugee camp in Kenya; and the mothers and children who get lost or die along the way in the 50-degree heat.

This is already a humanitarian crisis of epic proportions – worse, much worse than the one that inspired Band Aid, says Louise Paterson, director of the British medical aid agency Merlin in Kenya and Somalia. "We haven't seen anything like this for decades," she told The Independent on Sunday on Friday. "Hardened aid workers are weeping at what they see."

Small wonder. Vast numbers of families are walking barefoot for days in search of food in a triangle of hunger where the borders of Ethiopia, Kenya and Somalia meet. As the most unrelenting drought for 60 years continues to bear down, killing unknowable quantities of livestock and driving food prices beyond what most families could contemplate spending, images of children with skinny, malnourished bodies are becoming commonplace in this corner of Africa. Save the Children said more than a quarter of children in the worst-hit parts of Kenya are now dangerously malnourished, while malnutrition rates in Somalia have reached 30 per cent in some areas. In a hospital in Wajir, an ethnically Somali area in north-east Kenya, Dr Mohamed Hassan said that most children in the ward are suffering from severe malnutrition. "You will find severely wasted children here," he said.

Marixie Mercado, a Unicef spokesman, told a recent news briefing: "We have over two million children who are malnourished. Half a million of these children are in a life-threatening condition at this stage – a 50 per cent increase over 2009 figures. Child malnutrition rates in some camps are at least 45 per cent, three times the emergency threshold, Ms Mercado said. Child mortality rates are also very high.

At Dadaab camp in eastern Kenya, now the largest refugee centre in the world, some 382,000 people are crammed into a facility designed for 90,000. Around 1,400 more desperate people, most of them children, turn up every day. At Ethiopia's camps, each day brings 1,700 new arrivals. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and Ethiopia have set up a cluster of camps at Dolo Ado to accommodate the influx of refugees. The cluster of crowded camps scattered around the town now shelters almost 100,000 people, and the UN is frantically building more centres for another 120,000.

"This," said Antonio Guterres, the head of UNHCR, during a trip to the area on Wednesday, "is the worst humanitarian disaster we are facing in the world."

Word of the desperate conditions has spread back to Somalia, a quarter of whose 7.5 million people are now either internally displaced or living outside the country as refugees, according to the UN. Even the country's top militant group is now asking the aid agencies it once banned from its territories to return. And now, according to a BBC report yesterday, impromptu camps are forming, with the numbers there doubling within days and some holding more than 5,000 people. There are medicines here, but, as yet, no food. The inhabitants wait and hope.

And those who have not yet attempted the long trek to the camps – for some, a trudge of hundreds of miles in oppressive heat – are flocking to Mogadishu, a city now filling with hungry people begging in the streets.

Abdi Jimale arrived in Mogadishu two months ago, but said he found no help. "We were thinking the aid agencies would be helping us in Mogadishu, but we found nothing," he said. "I want to go to Kenya when I can get assistance. The situation we are living in is totally unbearable." Maryan Qasam, a 41-year-old mother of seven, said her 35 cows died after the pastures dried out. She makes about 50 cents a day from the generosity of strangers. "That cannot meet our needs," she said. "Our children occasionally cry for food and we can't get enough for them. Our farms dried up and our cows perished, so we have no options."

Southern Sudan, the world's newest country, has also been hit by the food crisis. It can ill afford to be. Children make up nearly half the population, and one in nine die before the age of five. For a population of around eight million, there are only 100 trained midwives, and fewer than 500 doctors.

Meeting this emergency is a daunting task. The British government has pledged £38m to the World Food Programme (enough to feed 1.3 million people for three months), and the European Commission has said it is sending $8m (£4.8m) in emergency funding to Dadaab, having already contributed nearly $100m to the drought crisis this year.

But it is the aid agencies that bear the brunt. On Friday, the Disasters Emergency Committee (DEC), the umbrella organisation for 14 leading British aid agencies, launched an appeal, a measure of how desperate the situation is. By yesterday evening, the DEC's initiative – courtesy of appeals on radio and TV by actors Jason Isaacs and Fay Ripley, Lenny Henry, and Kate Adie – had already raised donations of £6m.

This is only a start. Earlier in the week, the agencies in the DEC said that they were £85m short of what was required to meet the need in the Horn of Africa.

Matt Croucher, Save the Children's emergency manager for East Africa, said: "Thousands of children could starve if we don't get life-saving help to them fast. Parents no longer have any way to feed their children; they've lost their animals, their wells have dried up and food is too expensive. We can stop this tragedy unfolding, but we only have half the money we need. We urgently need to raise the rest."

There has been some ill-timed criticism of crisis fundraising in the past week, and aid agencies were swift to respond. Merlin's Louise Paterson told The IoS: "The reality is that people are starving and dying now. And it is most definitely not their fault. Pastoralists are very strong people who take care of their environment. They need help not because of any failures of their own, but because of what has happened in the wider world. We need to give help now."

To make a donation to the DEC East Africa Crisis Appeal, call the 24-hour hotline on 0370 60 60 900, visit www.dec.org.uk or donate over the counter at any post office or high street bank, or send a cheque. You can also donate £5 by texting the word CRISIS to 70000. To find out about Merlin, go to: merlin.org.uk/

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