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More people could have been saved from starvation in East Africa

The Horn of Africa drought killed between 50,000-100,000 people in five months (between April and August 2011), more than half of them children under five, and according to a frank report from aid agencies, many of these deaths would have been avoided by a quicker response from the international community.

Oxfam and Save the Children say that early warning systems forecast the likely emergency as early as August 2010. But because of a culture of risk aversion, humanitarian agencies and governments were slow to respond. This meant a six month delay in organising large-scale aid supplies, which only began in July 2011. By this time, malnutrition rates in some regions were far above emergency thresholds and many lives were lost even before aid began reaching people.

Affecting around 13 million people in parts of Kenya, Ethiopia and Somalia, the drought was becoming apparent in the autumn of 2010, when officials reported on ‘short rains’ and high malnutrition rates in Somalia. By December, the Inter-agency Food Security and Nutrition Working Group for East Africa made a clear call for pre-emptive action to “protect livelihoods and avoid later costly emergency interventions”.

Since early action was not forthcoming and following the failure of the second rainy season in March-May, the crisis rapidly reached a tipping point as families were left without crops or livestock. By the time famine was officially declared in July 1011 and emergency activity finally kicked into gear, acute malnutrition rates were running at 36% in southern Somalia. In other parts of the region, expensive interventions such as the trucking of water into Ethiopia, cost more than 3 million dollars over five months. This compares to an estimated cost of 900,000 dollars if extra water sources had been prepared in the same area when early signs of drought were clear.

The report by Oxfam and Save the Children concludes that funding for food emergencies needs to be sought and released as soon as signs of a looming crisis appear, rather than waiting until hunger levels have already ‘reached tipping-point’. The agencies are calling on governments to overhaul their response to such food crises, as laid out in the ‘Charter to End Extreme Hunger’. Oxfam’s Chief Executive admitted “we all bear responsibility for this dangerous delay that cost lives in East Africa and need to learn the lessons of the late response” and Save the Children urged all nations to sign up to the new Charter. Kofi Annan, Chair of the Africa Progress Panel, called “achieving global food and nutrition security....the challenge of our time”.

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