Horn of Africa Suffers Floods After Parching Drought

GENEVA, Switzerland, November 22, 2006 (ENS) - Thousands of Somalis are trekking from flooded refugee camps to drier ground in northeast Kenya as United Nations agencies rush emergency supplies to some 1.8 million people hit by the worst floods in the Horn of Africa in 50 years.

The floods, which also affect Kenya and Ethiopia, began in late October. They have deepened food insecurity caused by severe drought earlier this year. In some areas, the soil was so parched that it was not able to absorb the rain when it finally fell. Now, the few crops that survived the drought have been destroyed by the floods.

At least 80 people have died in floods in southern Somalia. The rains also have dislodged landmines seeded in Somalia’s long-standing conflict, posing additional hazards.

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Map of the Horn of Africa showing the Juba and Shabelle rivers, severely affected by flooding. (Map courtesy FAO)
At a news briefing in Geneva today, Jennifer Pagonis, spokesperson for the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, said that health and sanitation are a serious concern for Somalis in the Dadaab refugee complex, where the agency has delivered five planeloads of relief supplies since Sunday.

"Latrines throughout the camps have been flooded, contaminating standing water and posing a serious health risk. Fever, diarrhea, eye and skin infections are common," she said.

The floods have displaced more than 100,000 of the estimated 160,000 mainly Somali refugees in Dadaab, who fled to escape increasing violence in their country. UNHCR has airlifted in thousands of plastic sheets to help rebuild shelters, 28 emergency health kits, nearly 15,000 liters of fuel for vehicles and generators that power water pumps, offices, hospitals and clinics, and hundreds of shovels to fill sandbags to shore up flood defenses.

The UN Children’s Fund, UNICEF, and other agencies are bringing in vaccines and medical supplies to combat the spread of disease, Pagonis said.

Heavy rains have flooded crops and farmland. In some areas, people are completely surrounded by water and stranded on dikes. Hundreds of thousands of people urgently need humanitarian assistance.

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Southern Ethiopia was hard hit by floods in August. (Photo by Melese Awoke courtesy WFP)
The senior UN envoy to Somalia urged the international community to respond generously to requests for aid from agencies and flood victims.

The UN Secretary-General’s Special Representative for Somalia Francois Lonsény Fall said members of the country’s transitional government voiced concern to him that too little relief was reaching people in dire need.

“It was also clear to me flying over northern Kenya and southern Somalia yesterday that the extent of flooding is beyond anything seen in Somalia in many years,” he said. “In the past six weeks, most parts of the country have already received more than 300 percent of their normal rainfall.”

A Boeing 747 jumbo jet chartered by the UN World Food Programme, WFP, landed Tuesday in Nairobi, Kenya with 94 metric tons of high energy biscuits from the UN Humanitarian Response Depot in Brindisi, Italy. A planeload of 94 additional tons is expected within days.

The assistance will be enough for an estimated 100,000 refugees at the Dadaab camps for three days and another 100,000 flood-affected Kenyans for the same period.

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A WFP chartered aircraft has landed in Nairobi with 94 metric tons of high energy biscuits for the victims of the area's worst floods in years. (Photo courtesy WFP)
"The flooding made many roads impassable so some WFP contracted trucks are stuck in the mud," said Burkard Oberle, the WFP’s country director in Kenya. "These biscuits are an immediate response to the worst-hit survivors."

On Monday, the WFP launched a three month US$11.4 million regional air operation with fixed wing aircraft and helicopters to transport humanitarian workers and aid to regions in Somalia and Kenya that have been cut off by the floods.

"Even without the floods, Somalia is one of the most difficult places to deliver assistance in the world," said Peter Goossens, WFP country director for Somalia.

"So with the waters still rising, this operation is the only way to get food and other assistance to those who are in very desperate need," Goossens said.

A WFP chartered helicopter today flew agency and Kenyan government teams from Nairobi for a three day assessment of needs in areas that cannot be reached by road.

Over the next two months, the International Committee of the Red Cross, ICRC, will step up its emergency operations in southern Somalia to provide relief for more than 300,000 people affected by the flooding.

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Somalis on the move in search of food, water and shelter (Photo by Bruno Stevens/Cosmos courtesy WFP)
"This has been a catastrophic year for the Somali people,” said Pascal Hundt, head of the ICRC's delegation in Somalia. “After experiencing the worst drought in a decade, they have now to suffer the effects of torrential rain. The struggle to survive such extreme conditions has been pushed many families to the limit of their capabilities. And what they need most now is drinking water, food and shelter."

Today, the ICRC began airlifting tarpaulins to 324,000 people in some of the worst affected areas in southern Somalia - the Juba, Gedo and Hiiraan regions as well as Middle and Lower Shabelle. In coming weeks, the ICRC plans to distribute seeds among the same people.

"We are extremely concerned about the situation," said Pascal Hundt, head of the ICRC's delegation in Somalia. "The floods have exacerbated what was already one of the most horrendous humanitarian crises in the world."

"Somalia has endured 15 years of armed conflict. Now it lacks basic health services and an infrastructure. Tens of thousands of families have become displaced within their own country," said Hundt.

The International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies is launching an emergency appeal for US$7.8 million to support the Kenya Red Cross Society in its response to the current flooding.

UNICEF has only managed to reach about 35 percent of the 37,000 malnourished Kenyan children left by the earlier drought and is now looking at the prospect of bringing aid via boats, tractors, airdrops and helicopters, spokesman Michael Bociurkiw said.

Bociurkiw estimated that UNICEF would need more than $7 million in Somalia alone to provide aid to a projected one million flood victims.

Cycles of drought and flood are a recurring pattern in the region. In the winter of 1997-1998 torrential rains attributed to the El Niño weather phenomenon hit southern Somalia. Some 2,000 people died and 250,000 were forced to leave their homes.