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Death toll rises and children abandon school as Burundi food crisis deepens

© UNICEF Burundi/2007/Ntahondi
A pregnant mother, Florence Niyonkuru, with her two sons, who are undernourished as a result of the food crisis in Burundi.

By Rachel Bonham Carter

NEW YORK, USA, 14 February 2007 – Hunger and flooding in Burundi have killed some children, have made more homeless and are keeping others out of school. Reports from a recent tour around six provinces show a mounting death toll from the crisis.

People are dying from a variety of causes, which range from being beaten for stealing crops to food poisoning from eating unfamiliar roots and leaves – or they are simply starving to death. Others have drowned in the flooding.

Mothers are selling clothes and other belongings to keep their children alive, and some families are selling off land, roofing sheets and even the wooden supports from their homes as firewood.

“Most households have lost up to 50 or 60 per cent of their income because they cannot farm,” says UNICEF Burundi Communication Officer Olalekan Ajia. “Their farms have been swept away, their homes destroyed and they are either displaced internally or they have started fleeing towards the border with Tanzania.”

Rising food prices

Families in the affected areas have no food reserves and most households eat only once a day. Crops planted in August were lost during an unusually harsh dry spell. When the rains resumed at the end of September and farmers began planting again, the rains turned to torrents and floods, sweeping away crops and submerging farmlands.

© UNICEF Burundi/2007/Moundabe
Bweru Primary School, damaged by flooding in Burundi, under reconstruction by parents of its students.

At least 60 per cent of Burundians live on less than one dollar a day, but the price of beans – their most affordable source of protein – has almost doubled. One kilogramme of beans, which cost 450 Burundian Francs (about US 45 cents) in January 2006, now costs an average of 750 Burundian Francs.

As well as causing hunger, the flooding has destroyed thousands of homes and hundreds of schools, as well as bridges and roads. An estimated 13,475 people have been left homeless, and in one province alone 908 children are reported to have left school.

Aid for 2 million

The World Food Programme has led UN agencies and national non-governmental organizations in calling on the international community to provide food aid for 2 million Burundians – almost one third of the population – between now and the next harvest later this year. UNICEF is supporting 20 therapeutic feeding centres and 198 supplementary feeding centres with nutritional milk and Plumpy’nut, a vitamin-rich peanut paste

According to Mr. Ajia, one of UNICEF’s other main efforts is to provide psychosocial support and recreational activities to children who can no longer go to school, “and to ensure they resume classes as soon as possible.”

UNICEF and its partners have also supplied non-food items, including:

  • 12,000 10-litre jerry cans
  • 500 cartons of soap
  • Water-purifier tablets for 1,300 households
  • 2,600 blankets, 1,675 wrappers and 350 plastic sheets for emergency tents.

UNICEF is hoping to prevent outbreaks of diseases such as diarrhoea and cholera, and has distributed insecticide-treated mosquito nets to prevent malaria. And it is helping communities rebuild schools by supplying roofing sheets.

Meanwhile, in collaboration with the Government of Burundi, sister UN agencies and NGO partners, UNICEF is working to provide a comprehensive estimate of what is required from donors to address the deepening crisis.




14 February 2007:
UNICEF Communication Officer Olalekan Ajia discusses the flooding situation and UNICEF’s relief efforts in Burundi.
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