Oxfam seeks record £20m to fight East Africa drought

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The British charity Oxfam launches the biggest appeal of its 60-year history today, asking the public for £20m to help 11 million people suffering from the worst drought in more than a decade in East Africa. Five countries - Kenya, Somalia, Ethiopia, Eritrea and Djibouti - have been affected for many months by the effects of drought which have killed several hundred people and tens of thousands of cattle.

In places the prolonged lack of rain has led to clashes among nomadic herders over water and the diminishing numbers of livestock. Some herders have lost 70 per cent of their cattle, threatening their way of life.

"This crisis might be getting less attention than the tsunami did, but the number of people needing help is even greater," Barbara Stocking, Oxfam's director, said. "The severity of this crisis means assistance is needed on a huge scale."

The charity is appealing for funds to provide emergency food and water supplies but will also direct money raised towards long-term projects so that people can rebuild their lives and avert future crises.

"This appeal isn't designed to be just a sticking plaster," Ms Stocking said. "We want to help people across the region to recover and be in a better position when the next crisis hits. With the support of the public, we can work with people to build their futures as well as helping them through the terrible situation they face today."

British actors are joining the appeal. Michelle Collins of EastEnders said: "If me and my family were in that situation, I'd want to know that world would help. I hope the British public will be as generous today as they have been in the past and really put their hands in their pockets for this appeal."

Actress Keira Knightley is to auction the Vera Wang silk dress she wore to the Oscars on eBay tomorrow. "This is such an amazing dress and I'm really pleased to be able to donate it to Oxfam. I've seen the TV reports on the horrendous drought in East Africa and know how desperate things have become, so I'm happy to be able to do something to help," she said.

The recent heavy rain that has fallen has brought mixed blessings in the drought-stricken land, where several wet seasons have failed. Although the rainfall has provided some relief for crops and grazing, flash floods in Kenya have complicated the relief effort by displacing thousands of people, and heightening the risk of water-borne disease.

In Djibouti, rain has been falling for the past two weeks, but the World Food Programme said it was too early to tell whether it would help relieve the effects of the drought. In Ethiopia, struggling to feed its 90 million population, villages were washed away and hundreds of livestock were killed when the river Awash broke its banks.

Oxfam, which is providing aid to 500,000 people in Kenya, Somalia and Ethiopia, where the main impact of the drought has been felt, said villagers had to wade through murky waters to get drinking water. Cattle troughs were completely submerged and animals have been drinking water littered with carcasses.

The UN has had a slow response to its appeals for the Horn of Africa, and issued a fresh emergency appeal for the Horn of Africa of $426m (£238m) last week. Most of the appeal - $327m - was set aside for troubled Somalia, which has not had a functioning government in more than a decade.

Countries affected

* Five countries are affected - Kenya, Ethiopia, Eritrea, Somalia and Djibouti. The drought follows the failure of seasonal rains. Tanzania and Uganda also affected

* 11 million people are affected, hundreds of people and hundreds of thousands of livestock killed

* UN appealed for $426m, including $327 for Somalia

* Lake Victoria dropped to its lowest level and forced Uganda to reduce the flow of water to the Nile