By Chris Niles
NEW YORK, USA, 9 August 2011 – The eyes of the world are turned to the Horn of Africa, where a humanitarian disaster threatens the survival of millions. With famine declared in five areas in southern Somalia – and the United Nations warning that it could quickly spread – UNICEF’s Operations Centre, or OPSCEN, is playing a critical role in the agency’s crisis response.
|VIDEO: UNICEF correspondent Chris Niles reports on the critical work carried out by UNICEF's Operations Centre during major emergencies. Watch in RealPlayer|
“Across Somalia, Ethiopia and Kenya, an estimated 2.3 million children are already acutely malnourished,” says OPSCEN Deputy Manager Paul Fiszman. “To save lives, the international community must act immediately. UNICEF is gearing up its logistics to deliver unprecedented quantities of life-saving aid across the Horn.”
Based at UNICEF headquarters in New York, OPSCEN works to ensure a well-informed response to any humanitarian need. It is staffed 24 hours a day, every day, monitoring key developments that affect children’s well-being around the world.
|UNICEF Emergency Programmes Officer June Toda reviews crisis-response images online in the Operations Centre at UNICEF House in New York.|
These developments include diverse indicators such as armed conflict, social unrest, weather conditions and food prices
“We’re the eyes and the ears of the organization,” says Mr. Fiszman, “Our role is to be watching the world, to be looking out for any developments that could affect staff security or children in our programmes.”
The role becomes even more important when tragedy strikes. The Horn of Africa provides unique logistical challenges because it is spread across several countries, and because so many people are on the move. Hundreds of thousands of Somalis, fleeing famine, have sought shelter in refugee camps in Kenya and Ethiopia. And those camps’ resources are stretched beyond their limits.
|A woman holds her sick baby, who has diarrhoea, and a prescription for oral rehydration salts at a temporary health clinic in Mogadishu, the capital of Somalia.|
“One of the survival strategies of families and of communities is to move. It is very important that UNICEF track population movements so we can deliver life-saving aid where it is most needed,” noted Mr. Fiszman.
A lifeline in emergencies
At the same time, OPSCEN must do all it can to ensure the safety of more than 13,000 staff worldwide. Staff security is of particular concern in the Horn of Africa, as Somalia is riven by violence.
“OPSCEN is on call 24/7 to provide support to UNICEF staff,” Mr. Fiszman said, adding that the centre “is a lifeline for UNICEF colleagues, particularly those working in unstable environments.
|A child fills a jerry can with water at an outdoor tap in a village in Turkana District, Kenya, one of the areas severely affected by the drought emergency in the Horn of Africa.|
On days when humanitarian disasters are not dominating the news headlines, OPSCEN looks at longer-term trends and issues reports analyzing everything from politics to climate change. Its role in providing straightforward geopolitical analysis is essential to UNICEF – because children’s lives are inexorably linked to social, political, economic and environmental conditions.
Life and death
But in the coming weeks, providing the best information to UNICEF leaders who are deciding where and when to deploy aid in the Horn of Africa will be a matter of life and death.
“Time is of the essence,” said Mr. Fiszman. “Children are dying every day.”
Crisis in the Horn of Africa
In Kenya, school offers meals and shelter