GENEVA/NEW YORK/ADDIS ABABA/ASMARA, 6 December, 2002 - UNICEF Executive Director Carol Bellamy today warned that drought-related illnesses in the Horn of Africa are severely affecting the population, and that women and children, "are already in the teeth of this destructive drought."
Speaking from the Ethiopian capital of Addis Ababa after surveying drought-struck areas of the country, Bellamy said that hundreds of acutely malnourished children being fed in UNICEF-supported feeding centres in Ethiopia and Eritrea are, "the most potent harbinger of what is coming. These are the first signs of a creeping disaster. We can expect to see a lot more malnutrition if the situation doesn't change, and if more assistance for food, health, and water supplies doesn't arrive."
She added that internal migration because of lands parched by the latest failure of the rains had further weakened infants and young children who were now more likely to succumb to vaccine-preventable diseases, malnutrition, thirst, and exposure to violence. "They are wide open to the common diseases under these conditions: diarrhoea, malaria, respiratory infections, and others that don't just sicken children, they kill." UNICEF estimates that as many as three million children under five are at risk due to drought.
UNICEF has begun flying emergency aid supplies to the region. Around 45 tonnes of aid arrived in the region in November, and more is following. UNICEF says that the air shipments will boost its existing humanitarian programmes in the country with essential for disease prevention and treatment, therapeutic feeding, and the extraction and storage of clean water supplies for children. Bellamy visited the Afar region of Ethiopia, where a measles and vitamin A campaign targeting 600,000 children began last month. It is estimated that malnutrition and preventable diseases, both of which are exacerbated by drought conditions, cause 60 to 80 per cent of health problems in Eritrea and Ethiopia.
UNICEF says that the combined fall-out of drought and post-war devastation has also had an impact on education, as children are withheld from school because of insufficient resources, and as schools run out of water sources. Anecdotal evidence from teachers shows that classes are rapidly diminishing in some drought areas. UNICEF is working to repair and provide additional water points in and around schools in an effort to keep children learning.
Health facilities across the region have been similarly hard hit, further eroding the safety net for an increasingly beleaguered population. UNICEF says that the movement of populations in search of food and water will inevitably increase the incidence of HIV/AIDS transmission, already a major threat in Ethiopia.
Ethiopia and Eritrea have pastoral and agricultural-based economies, battered by four years of drought conditions, and a two-and-a-half year border war between the two countries that ended in 2000. Communities were uprooted and scattered by the conflict, and mines sown in fields and on grazing lands. In Eritrea, many farmers and agricultural workers have yet to be de-mobilized, further reducing agricultural output, and reducing food sources for families.
Many perennial water sources have dried up, and in some areas drought has destroyed all crops. Large numbers of the bloated carcasses of domestic herd animals litter the landscape. Livestock is the major commodity of pastoralists living in some of the worst affected areas, who rely on the milk and meat to feed their families.
After the failure of the annual rains this summer, the government of Ethiopia issued a warning of impending crisis, while the government of Eritrea has said that it continues to face, "an exceptionally severe and prolonged drought." UNICEF says that as many as 17 million people may eventually be affected by the drought, with more than half the population of Eritrea threatened. Eritrea and Ethiopia are two of the world's least developed nations, ranking 157th and 168th respectively on the UNDP development index, out of 173 countries. UN aid agencies and the international community are warning that within three to four months, Ethiopia and Eritrea could face a humanitarian catastrophe.
"People have to understand that we are in the disaster now," said Bellamy. "There's a struggle for survival as we speak. "
UNICEF in Ethiopia and Eritrea concentrates on primary health care and nutrition for children and women, water supply and sanitation, basic primary education, the protection of children, and awareness measures on HIV/AIDS transmission and landmines.
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