Hundreds of thousands face starvation and death in Africa in the growing crisis no one is talking about

'As we enter 2017, over 37 million people across Africa are without food,' warns International Development Secretary Priti Patel

Ian Johnston
Saturday 24 December 2016 23:11
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A farmer in Zimbabwe examines a field where crops once grew
A farmer in Zimbabwe examines a field where crops once grew

During the drought that devastated the Horn of Africa in 2010 and 2011, women bound their waists with rope to deaden the pangs of hunger as they gave what little food they had to their children.

In stark contrast to such selfless acts, the international community stood back and watched until it was too late for the 260,000 people who starved to death.

Now aid workers are increasingly concerned that 2017 could see a tragedy on a similar scale with droughts – and floods – meaning some parts of southern and east Africa have not had a significant harvest for three years.

The Government is leading calls for the world to take effective action this time – just as right-wing politicians and newspapers call for David Cameron’s flagship pledge to spend 0.7 per cent of gross national income on aid to be scrapped.

The Department for International Development (DfID) has already committed £362m in aid over this year and next, and is understood to be considering increasing its contribution further.

“As we enter 2017, over 37 million people across Africa are without food,” International Development Secretary, Priti Patel, said in a statement sent to the Independent. “Families face losing their homes and livelihoods as the effects of widespread drought worsen.

“That is why ‘Global Britain’ is leading the response to the escalating crisis by providing life-saving food, water and shelter.”

Warning the crisis could force many people in the region to become refugees, Ms Patel appealed to other countries to “step up to prevent people from going hungry”.

“Tackling the global challenges of our time such as drought and disease which fuel migration, insecurity and instability is the right thing to do and is firmly in Britain’s interest,” she said.

A source in the international aid community told The Independent that there was a danger of a repeat of “the desperate conditions and extreme hunger that killed hundreds of thousands in 2010”.

“Certain population groups are now in the third year of having very limited household input,” the source said.

“They will have already sold off household assets, livestock will have died or are likely to be unhealthy and not productive.

“That’s when you start to see changes in mortality that we shouldn’t be seeing in populations.”

The source said during the previous drought “there was an issue around a slow response by the system” and efforts had been made since then to try to pick up on the warning signs sooner.

But, with the world focused on events in the Middle East, the current refugee crisis, Brexit and the US presidency, there are fears an unfolding disaster could go unnoticed once again.

The problem has been caused by a particularly severe El Niño weather system, a natural recurring effect that has been exacerbated by climate change. While the El Niño has ended, there are suggestions that the next harvest could be in trouble.

Rebecca Sutton, Oxfam’s global El Niño campaign manager, said: “The vegetation cover index in parts of the Horn of Africa area is lower now than it was at this stage in the 2010/11 drought. That indicator is looking worse now than it was then.

“With drought, it’s a slow-onset crisis. It doesn’t attract media coverage and very unpleasant pictures of people and animals in a very bad way come only once it’s way too late.

“By the time you get headline media coverage, things are extremely bad and way too many people have suffered more than they needed to.”

She praised the UK Government, saying it had “responded quite well to this crisis”, but warned that “something of this scale is more than a handful of donors can deal with”.

As part of its aid package, DfID has now given £16.9m to Unicef to help countries in southern Africa, which are approaching the “peak of the lean system”, the United Nations aid agency said in a statement.

It said this year had seen the “worst El-Niño induced drought in decades”, and the money would be used for “life-saving interventions to prevent the escalation of malnutrition and child illness or death in Madagascar, Malawi, Mozambique and Zimbabwe”.

Increasing numbers of children have been dropping out of school due to a lack of water or more pressing problems at home, Unicef said, while all four countries were seeing outbreaks of diseases such as cholera, typhoid and diarrhoea.

The money will allow 456,000 children to be checked for severe, acute malnutrition and more than 65,000 to be treated for several common diseases. A further 194,000 people will get access to safe drinking water.

Leila Gharagozloo-Pakkala, Unicef’s regional director for eastern and southern Africa, said: “As already vulnerable children and their families enter another lean season, these funds are critical for helping them to cope with the ongoing impacts of this chronic emergency.

“We greatly appreciate – and applaud – DfID for leading the way in ensuring that communities are significantly supported to become further resilient to the recurrent climatic crises we are seeing across much of the region.”

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