Spiraling Food Prices Tipping Millions in East Africa Towards Catastrophe

By Oxfam

NAIROBI -- Skyrocketing food prices risk pushing millions of people across East Africa towards severe hunger and destitution, Oxfam International warned today.

A toxic cocktail of factors, including successive droughts, violent conflict and chronic poverty, has put an estimated 9 to 13 million people in urgent need of humanitarian assistance. This situation has been compounded by rapidly rising food prices.

Oxfam’s Rob McNeil, who has just returned from the Somali and Afar regions of Ethiopia said: “This is a catastrophe in the making; we have time to act before it becomes a reality. The cost of food has escalated by up to 500 per cent in some places, leaving people who have suffered drought after drought in utter destitution. Some of the roads we travelled on were littered with dead livestock. There is little or no pasture or water for the animals that people rely upon. People are increasingly becoming desperate. I saw people in one village reduced to pounding the food pellets intended for their animals into porridge to feed their families. We fear that the worst could be yet to come as the crisis deteriorates across East Africa.”

In Somalia, the cost of imported rice increased by up to 350 percent between the beginning of 2007 and May 2008. In areas of Ethiopia, the price of wheat has more than doubled over a six-month period and food prices are expected to remain prohibitively high for many until the next harvest in October.

In the areas of East Africa heavily dependent on food imports, such as Somalia, global food price rises are making food more expensive. Local factors including poor harvests, market disruption due to insecurity and the rising cost of fuel globally have also played a role.

Besides a succession of poor rains, drought, high food prices, violent insecurity and chronic poverty, the region has been hit by pests and disease. An infestation of voracious caterpillars has damaged almost 70 per cent of crops and pasture in four northern districts of Kenya. Northern Kenya and Uganda have also suffered from an attack of a virus that causes high death rates of goats and sheep.

The impact of all these compounding problems is increasing destitution and misery for an already beleaguered population. This is the second serious drought in the region in the last three years and the human toll of the crisis is huge:

• In Somalia, 2.6 million, some 35 percent of the population, require emergency assistance. This could increase to half the population of the country (3.5 million) by the end of 2008. Between 18-24 percent of children are acutely malnourished.
• In Ethiopia, the government estimates 4.6 million people are now in need of emergency food assistance. This has more than doubled from 2.2 million in need of help at the beginning of this year. Some 75,000 children are suffering from severe acute malnutrition in drought stricken areas according to the government.
• In Turkana, northern Kenya, an Oxfam survey showed that 25 percent of children are suffering from acute malnutrition, the highest in the country.

High malnutrition rates have been reported in several parts of Ethiopia and could increase without an immediate increase in humanitarian assistance. To address the worsening food crisis the Ethiopian government requires an additional $430 million.

Oxfam is calling on donors to increase aid levels to the region. A UN appeal for emergency aid for Somalia, one of the worst hit countries, has only received 37 percent of funding needs. The Ethiopian government estimates that only one-third of the funds necessary to manage the crisis have been received.

“The public must be asking why does this happen year after year. The answer is that the world consistently fails to adequately address the underlying causes of these crises. Chronic poverty in a world of gross inequality of wealth and opportunity lie at the heart of these cyclical crises. Both governments in the rich and poor world need to invest in a concerted action to tackle the underlying causes. We need to act to save lives in the short term but without investment in the long term as well then scenes of destitution will continue to haunt our shared conscience,” said Oxfam America president Raymond C. Offenheiser.

Besides responding to immediate needs Oxfam called on donors not to walk away from the region after the emergency phase has ended. Long-term investment in safety net schemes, agricultural development and building capacity of people to prepare for future disasters is needed to prevent the vicious cycle of food crises, which have plagued East Africa.

Across the region, Oxfam is currently reaching an estimated 500,000 people with water, food aid and cash programs. Oxfam is also helping people to protect and recover their livestock and their seeds for the coming planting season, and in the long term, to secure their livelihoods.

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