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BMJ. 2007 November 10; 335(7627): 958–959.
PMCID: PMC2072000

Aid agencies fear for future of pastoralists in Horn of Africa

Humanitarian agencies are warning that the Horn of Africa faces widespread malnutrition, with some areas on the verge of disaster.

There is particular concern for the region's 20 million nomadic herders or pastoralists, whose children are among the “most vulnerable in the world,” says Unicef. Pastoralists live mostly in arid and semi-arid areas, characterised by scarcity of water, poor communications infrastructure, little investment, and a lack of basic services—only 20% of their children go to school.

Most of the region has been affected by conflict. Somalia, where more than half the population are pastoralists, has been particularly affected. Health facilities are so dysfunctional that only 10% of children under 5 years old have been immunised against measles.

Christian Balslev-Olesen, United Nations humanitarian coordinator for Somalia, last week issued an emergency appeal, warning that thousands of children in the Shabelle region are at risk of starvation and appealing for all parties in the conflict to allow access to aid and to stop targeting civilians.

He said, “Approximately 38 000 children under the age of 5 years in the rural population are estimated to be acutely malnourished, with 10 000 estimated to be severely malnourished and at risk of death if they do not receive the appropriate care.”

Access to health care is a major problem throughout the region. In areas of Kenya people travel an average of 40-80 km to reach a health facility, says a new Unicef report, The Pastoralist Child.

Clean water and sanitation are equally scarce. In northeastern Kenya the average distances to the nearest water points are 25-40 km, while less than 4% of people in pastoralist areas of Somalia have access to safe sources of water. Sanitation is almost unknown in rural districts.

Unicef warns that the proportion of children across the Horn of Africa who are malnourished has risen above the emergency threshold of 15% after successive droughts and flooding in recent years. It is 20% in Eritrea and as much as 30% in areas of Kenya and Somalia.

The Ethiopian Disaster Prevention and Preparedness Agency has warned that the situation in Ethiopia's Somali region was “critical” and that humanitarian assistance was urgently needed to prevent an emergency. The UN estimates that emergency food is needed for 600 000 people in the region, which was, until recently, off limits to aid workers because of a separatist insurgency.

The pastoralists' nomadic way of life has become increasingly difficult in recent years, with fixed borders interrupting migratory routes, rainfall diminishing, and growing pressure on fewer areas of pasture and water sources causing increasing inter-communal conflict.

Representatives of various communities from the region are meeting this week in Ethiopia's South Omo district to discuss their common future at a regional gathering facilitated by the UN's Pastoralist Communications Initiative. Participants say that their interests are too often neglected by decision makers and that more effort should be put into developing mobile schools, clinics, and veterinary outreach services rather than concentrating services in towns.

The Pastoralist Child is available at www.unicef.org.


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