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UK: 400k Somali children to die without more aid

A British government minister says up to 400,000 Somali children could die of starvation unless urgent action is taken.
/ Source: msnbc.com news services

A British government minister says up to 400,000 Somali children could die of starvation unless urgent action is taken.

International Development Secretary Andrew Mitchell on Wednesday made the first visit in 18 years by a British minister to Somalia's capital, Mogadishu, where he met with government leaders and aid groups.

Mitchell said in neighboring Kenya that Britain will give UNICEF more than $41 million in additional aid. That will allow nearly 200,000 people to have two months of supplementary food rations and vaccinations against measles for 800,000 children.

More than 12 million people need food aid in drought-struck East Africa. More than 2 million live in areas controlled by the Somali militant group al-Shabab.

While the famine in southern Somalia has grabbed headlines, southern Ethiopia is teetering on the brink of a food crisis. The Ethiopian government says 250,000 people need food aid amid what the U.N. says is the worst drought in 60 years. An aid organization and agricultural officials say the number of people who need emergency food aid in Ethiopia is bigger, around 700,000.

The rains never came as they usually do late February to the end of May. If they fail again in August, there won't be a harvest in September.

People without food aid will "definitely be in trouble," World Food Program officer Yohannes Desta said. "Do these people have enough resilience to survive? I don't think so."

On Tuesday, the United Nations said the mortality rate among young children at a camp for Somali refugees in Ethiopia has reached alarming levels, with an average of 10 children under five dying every day since the Kobe camp in southeast Ethiopia opened in June.

The camp holds 25,000 refugees. A suspected measles outbreak combined with acute malnutrition is thought to be the cause of deaths, said Adrian Edwards, a spokesman for the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees.

On Tuesday, the U.N. World Food Program insisted it won't reduce emergency aid shipments to Somalia despite allegations of fraud, saying that though such complaints are frequent it doesn't believe there have been big losses.

WFP said it is bringing 5,000 tons a month of food into the Somali capital of Mogadishu to help the famine-hit nation. Tens of thousands of people each week are fleeing famine in Somalia to neighboring Ethiopia and Kenya.

An investigation on the ground by The Associated Press found that sacks of grain, peanut butter snacks and other food staples meant for starving Somalis are being stolen and sold in Somali markets, raising concerns that the unscrupulous are stealing from international famine relief efforts. One official in Mogadishu estimated to the AP that up to half of the recent food shipments may have been stolen.

Also on Tuesday, the World Bank's lead economist for Kenya, Wolfgang Fenglerk, told Reuters that the famine in the Horn of Africa is manmade — the result of artificially high prices for food and civil conflict.

"This crisis is manmade," Fengler said in a telephone interview. "Droughts have occurred over and again, but you need bad policymaking for that to lead to a famine."

Some 12.4 million people in the Horn of Africa — including Somalia, Kenya, Ethiopia and Djibouti — are affected by the worst drought in decades, according to the United Nations. Tens of thousands of people have already died.

'Caught in a dilemma'
Nurses at a food center in Shebedino, one of many in Ethiopia, said they see about 50 severely malnourished children a month. A year ago an average of only six underfed children received treatment there per month.

Berhanu, a 1½-year-old baby, has twig-thin arms and weighs half of what he should. Shundure Tekamo, a mother of six, brought Berhanu to the feeding center for the second time in six months.

"I'm caught in a dilemma," she said. "I want to save my child but who is feeding my children at home?"

Shundure said there was no food to feed them when she left home and she expects her husband to come up with an alternative to "improve our life."

This ethnically diverse region is overpopulated. Most families have six or more people, but farmers till only tiny, state-owned plots.

Farmers should diversify crops and have smaller families, Yohannes said. The Ethiopian government, which is giving out cash to the hungry as food reserves have dwindled, prefers to resettle southern farmers to less densely populated and more fertile areas, mostly hundreds of miles away. This year 86 farmers from Shebedino who the government says have volunteered for resettlement have been moved to Benchmaji in the southwest of Ethiopia.

While the authorities claim the resettled farmers are better off, Yohannes questions its success. "The problem is that people get resettled to places with a different culture and different agricultural practices," he said.

While chopping with his machete at a false banana tree stem — an edible, drought-resistant plant indigenous to Ethiopia's south — to feed his donkey, Tessema Naramo said he is one of the few villagers whose children don't face malnutrition. Tessema is an 80-year old farmer and father of nine. His oldest is 37. The youngest is 5.

"The weather has changed and ruined my harvest in the last couple of years, so I diversified my crops," he said. Next to the usual corn and coffee, he planted banana and avocado trees and started growing eucalyptus trees, which people use for firewood or house-building material. It turned out to be a lucrative business.

But now amid the prolonged drought, Naramo is using his crops to feed his own family, "and even that is hardly enough."