Somalia: ‘Disaster fatigue’ must not dull compassion for starving children – UN

Parents wait with their malnourished and dehydrated children in a corridor at Banadir Hospital in the Somali capital Mogadishu

19 August 2011 – The head of the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) today made an impassioned appeal to the world to save an estimated 390,000 starving children in famine-ravaged regions of Somalia, saying the international community must not let the so-called “disaster fatigue” numb compassion and generosity.

“I have read in the last few days a number of articles noting a decrease of interest in the Horn of Africa in the press and in the publics. This must not happen. We cannot let a kind of disaster fatigue set in,” said Anthony Lake, the UNICEF Executive Director, at a news conference at UN Headquarters to mark World Humanitarian Day.

“The statistics can be mind-numbing, but remember that the data is sons and daughters. The statistics are little boys and little girls, every one of them,” said Mr. Lake, adding that the situation in Somalia was a “human disaster becoming a human catastrophe.”

In addition to the tens of thousands of Somalis who have already died as a result of the drought-induced famine, which has been exacerbated by conflict and poverty, an estimated 390,000 children are suffering from malnutrition. Four fifths of them are in the worst affected areas of the country’s south-central zone.

“In some areas there we are seeing already historically high rates of severe acute malnutrition… which means that the number of children in that zone facing imminent death is approaching 140,000 children,” said Mr. Lake. “In many ways this is a children’s crisis. Their plight demands and deserves our most urgent, bold and sustained response,” he added.

“I think that in all of us […] there is a natural desire when confronted with the images of people suffering so much to push them away, to categorize them as victims and to thus separate their lives from ours.

“That is wrong. They are not simply victims to be pitied. They are courageous, resilient human beings fighting under terrible circumstances to survive and save their children’s lives. They both deserve out admiration and our support in their desperate struggle, and we are struggling to provide it,” said Mr. Lake.

He warned that the onset of the next rainy season is not due until October and projections indicate that the entire central and southern Somalia will suffer the same extreme food and nutrition crisis now prevailing in the five areas where famine has been declared, with almost 300,000 children in imminent peril.

“The crisis will get worse,” said Mr. Lake. “There will be no major harvest until the beginning of next year and those are predicted to be below average.

“We are in a fight against time. We must take from these facts and projections not hopelessness, not surrender, but a renewed determination to limit the deaths, to save lives and to know some day that we did all we could today. We need all the support that we can get in order to do this,” he added.

Mr. Lake said that UNICEF had established hundreds of nutrition centres and programmes in Somalia and was reaching more than a million people with water and sanitation. The agency is also planning a measles vaccination programme that is expected to reach two million children in the coming months.

Speaking at the same news conference, Valerie Amos, the UN Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs, said that despite stepped-up efforts aid agencies were not reaching as many people across the drought-stricken Horn of African with life-saving assistance as they would like.

“We are all working as quickly as we can to provide life-saving aid and protection in the [Somali] capital, Mogadishu, across the border in refugee camps particularly in Kenya and Ethiopia and increasingly in the south, in Al Shabaab-controlled areas.

“But we are still not reaching enough people. Donors and the public have continued to give generously, but we still need more than a billion dollars to provide all the aid that is needed,” said Ms. Amos, who is also the UN Emergency Relief Coordinator.


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