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U.N. chief Ban Ki-moon's plea: We can't allow Somalia to starve

Op-Ed

More than 11 million people are suffering. To turn the tide, to offer hope in the name of our common humanity, we must mobilize worldwide, Ban Ki-moon says.

July 22, 2011|By Ban Ki-moon

Across the Horn of Africa, people are starving. A catastrophic combination of conflict, high food prices and drought has left more than 11 million people in desperate need. The United Nations has been sounding the alert for months. We have resisted using the "F-word" — famine — but on Wednesday, we officially recognized the fast-evolving reality. There is famine in parts of Somalia. And it is spreading.

This is a wake-up call we cannot ignore. Every day I hear the harrowing reports from our U.N. teams on the ground. Somali refugees, their cattle and goats dead from thirst, walking for weeks to find help in Kenya and Ethiopia. Children who arrive alone, terrified and malnourished, their parents dead, in a foreign land.

From within Somalia, we hear terrible stories of families who watched helplessly as their children died, one by one. One woman recently arrived at a U.N. displacement camp 87 miles southwest of Mogadishu after a three-week trek. Halima Omar, from the region of Lower Shabelle, was once considered well-off. Today, after three years of drought, she barely survives. Four of her six children are dead.

"There is nothing in the world worse than watching your own child die in front of your eyes because you cannot feed him," she said of her ordeal. "I am losing hope."

Even for those who reach the camps, there is often no hope. Many are simply too weak after long journeys across the arid land and die before they can be nursed back to strength. For people who need medical attention, there are often no medicines. Imagine the pain of those doctors, who must watch their patients perish for lack of resources.

As a human family, these stories shock us. We ask: How is this happening again? After all, the world has enough food. And yes, economic times are hard. Yet since time immemorial, amid even the worst austerity, the compassionate impulse to help our fellow human beings has never wavered.

That is why I reach out today: to focus global attention on this crisis, to sound the alarm and to call on the world's people to help Somalia in this moment of greatest need. To save the lives of the people at risk — the vast majority of them women and children — we need about $1.6 billion in aid. So far, international donors have given only half that amount. To turn the tide, to offer hope in the name of our common humanity, we must mobilize worldwide.

This means everyone. I appeal to all nations — both those that fund our work year in and year out, and those that do not traditionally give through the multinational system — to step up to the challenge. On July 25, in Rome, U.N. agencies will gather to coordinate our emergency response and to raise funds for immediate assistance.

Meanwhile, we must all ask ourselves, as individual citizens, how we can help. This might mean private donations, as in previous humanitarian emergencies in Indonesia after the tsunami or Haiti after the earthquake, or it could mean pushing elected representatives toward a more robust response. Even in the best of circumstances, this may not be enough. There is a real danger we cannot meet all the needs.

The situation is particularly difficult in Somalia. The ongoing conflict there complicates any relief effort. More broadly, sharply rising food prices have stretched the budgets of international agencies and NGOs. Operating conditions are complicated by the fact that the transitional national government of Somalia controls only a portion of the capital, Mogadishu. We are working on an agreement with the forces of Shabab, an Islamist militia group, to grant access to areas of the country that they control. Even so, serious security concerns remain.

We must also recognize that Kenya and Ethiopia, which have generously kept their borders open, face enormous challenges of their own. The largest refugee camp in the world, Dadaab, in Kenya, is already dangerously overcrowded with some 380,000 refugees. Many thousands more are waiting to be registered. In neighboring Ethiopia, 2,000 people a day are arriving at the Dolo refugee camp, also struggling to keep pace. This compounds a food crisis faced by almost 7 million Kenyans and Ethiopians at home. In Djibouti and Eritrea, tens of thousands of people are also in need — and potentially many more.

Even as we respond to this immediate crisis, we need to find ways to deal with underlying causes. Today's drought may be the worst in decades. But with the effects of climate change being increasingly felt throughout the world, it surely will not be the last. This means practical measures: drought-resistant seeds, irrigation, rural infrastructure, livestock programs.

These projects can work. Over the last 10 years, they have helped boost agricultural production in Ethiopia by 8% a year. We have also seen improvements in our early warning systems. We knew this drought was coming and began issuing warnings in November. Looking ahead, we must ensure that such warnings are heard in time.

Above all, we need peace. As long as there is conflict in Somalia, we cannot effectively fight famine. More and more children will go hungry; more and more people will needlessly die. And this cycle of insecurity is growing dangerously wide.

In Somalia, Halima Omar told us: "Maybe this is our fate — or maybe a miracle will happen and we will be saved from this nightmare."

I cannot accept this as her fate. Together, we must rescue her and her countrymen and all their children from a truly terrible nightmare.

Ban Ki-moon is secretary-general of the United Nations.

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