- The death toll among 3.5 million Kenyans in need of emergency assistance could rise in the coming months unless donations to head off a disaster arrive soon, the UN warns. "These people have run out of water and food. Unless we reach them all very soon they will run out of time," the head of the UN's World Food Programme (WFP) said after visiting the Kenyan-Somali border area, referring to the drought affected.
"Yesterday I saw thousands of pastoralists barely existing in the town of El Wak in north-eastern Kenya on the border with Somalia," WFP Executive James Morris said on his return to Nairobi after a visit to the epicentre of the Horn of Africa drought. "They have lost their animals, and with them, their means of survival. They are forced to share the food aid they receive with new arrivals who are showing up each day. So far the human death toll is fairly limited."
The Kenyan government and the UN agency have warned against a humanitarian disaster in northern Kenya and southern Somalia since January. Food aid donations to help these million of drought victims have however been very slow and the WFP is stressing that the agency still needs US$ 189 million for its year-long emergency operation. The biggest single donor so far has been Kenya itself, contributing with US$ 13.7 million since January.
The UN agency is assisting Kenyan authorities - who have their own costly programme to tackle the drought - to coordinate assistance to the strongest affected regions and people fleeing the devastated area. "WFP and its partners are quickly registering the new arrivals to ensure they receive food, but we fear that any break in food supply to the most vulnerable people will lead to suffering and death on a much larger scale," Mr Morris said in Nairobi yesterday.
Mr Morris emphasises that WFP desperately needed more donations to continue its life-saving work in Kenya. While a donation from the government of Kenya of 60,000 metric tonnes of maize and rice would cover the cereal requirements for March and April, WFP only has half the quantity of beans needed in Kenya for the month of March and no vegetable oil, Mr Morris informed.
The WFP leader also expressed deep concern about the regional nature of the drought and its impact on neighbouring war-torn Somalia, where the UN agency requires US$ 34 million for its emergency operations for the rest of 2006 and access to 1.4 million people in need of food aid in the south is difficult due to insecurity.
"While poor funding is hampering emergency drought operations in Kenya, WFP and other humanitarian agencies in southern Somalia face the enormous challenge of reaching drought victims in remote and insecure areas," he said. "We urge leaders and rival militia to set aside their differences and guarantee safe passage to prevent a humanitarian catastrophe."
A spate of ship hijackings off Somalia in 2005 closed WFP's normal supply routes for food aid by sea. Overland relief convoys regularly face insecurity. WFP is using a combination of the slower and more costly land routes and limited shipping to increase food deliveries to meet growing needs. It has contingency plans for air drops, which are more costly than the land transport in case of flooding when the rains come.
While Western governments and other potential donors are slow to respond to the growing disaster in Kenya and Somalia, a number of humanitarian organisations around the world are starting to take action. One of them is the British charity Christian Aid, which is collecting funds to assist the drought victims.
"This is a crisis on the verge of becoming a catastrophe," said Domimic Nutt of the organisation. "These are the last few weeks that many people are going to be able to survive without help," he added in an appeal to Britons. Funds were needed for Kenya, Somalia and even parts of Ethiopia, Mr Nutt stressed.
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