(HN, July 19, 2011 - UPDATED 1815GMT) - The United Nations is poised to declare a famine in parts of Somalia, the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) reported late last night.
While a famine is expected to be declared in Somalia Wednesday in Nairobi, CBC reported, as many as 12 million people are impacted in the unstable country, as well as Kenya, Ethiopia, and neighbouring countries.
UN sources in Kenya confirmed that a famine would be declared at any time and that all agencies were gearing up for the upgrading of the crisis.
The drought is the worst the region has seen in about six decades, raising memories of the devastating Ethiopian famine in 1984-1985, in which more than one million people died.
CBC reported that food insecurity has already reached emergency levels — one level below famine. "Famine/catastrophe" is the worst-case scenario on a five-level scale used to gauge food security.
Fresh details of the situation in the region are expected this morning during the regularly-scheduled UN media briefing in Geneva.
The UN employs several indicators to declare a famine, including acute malnutrition in more than 30 per cent of children, at least two deaths per 10,000 people every day and access to less than four litres of water a day. Large-scale displacement of people, civil strife and pandemic illness are also taken into consideration.
At a UN media briefing in Geneva today monitored by HUMNEWS, Paul Spiegel, Chief of Section, Public Health, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), seemed to suggest a famine would be declared imminently.
Spiegel said that the situation in Dolo Ado - a transit camp in southern Ethiopia on the Kenya-Somali border - was very dire, and he had been taken aback by what he had seen there. A new camp called Kobe, where the new arrivals are placed, has seen an extremely high mortality rate of 7.4 deaths per 10,000 people/day in June. The baseline for Sub-Saharan Africa was 0.5 and an emergency is generally declared at greater than or equal to 1 death. The preponderance of the deaths are among under-five children.
The malnutrition rates, one of the major causes of death, is extremely high. The severe malnutrition rate was 26.8 per cent in June, an extremely rare and very high finding, Spiegel said.
Somalia has been particularly hard hit by the current crisis, with thousands of people fleeing the country every day - at the rate of more than 2,000-a-day into Kenya and Ethiopia. Most of those fleeing are women and children, many clinging to life from acute malnutrition.
"Added to the drought, this is a region which suffers insecurity and conflict, population growth, poverty and over-utilization of land," said Valeria Amos, the UN emergency relief co-ordinator for humanitarian affairs.
Aid groups and UN agencies are calling for more assistance to meet the mounting need. Roughly $835 million US has been received to assist people in the Horn of Africa, but $1 billion more is needed, the UN said. CBC said the United States has been slow in committing funds.
Raouf Mazou, Deputy Director, East Africa and the Horn of Africa Region, UNHCR, said at a media briefing in Geneva today monitored by HUMNEWS that there are definitely not enough resources to respond to the needs. An appeal for about $136 million was issued last week, but so far only about 17 per cent of what was required is available.
Canada has contributed roughly $22 million, but is expected to announce new funding within a week, the CBC's Brian Stewart, a distinguished senior fellow at the Munk School for Global Affairs at the University of Toronto, said.
"Normally Canada is expected to pay up to four per cent of major humanitarian emergencies," he added.
Stewart, who was one of the first journalists to alert the world to the Ethiopian famine in the 1980s, said the key need is to buy sufficient food and water from inside Africa.
"Shipments from abroad take far too long and take away from Africa's own potential to deliver good and fast supplies," he noted. A UNICEF official said one of the main constraints to helping women and children in Somalia is restrictions on access, caused by the ongoing unrest.
The World Food Programme (WFP) said today its Executive Director, Josette Sheeran, is leaving for the region today, first visiting Ethiopia before proceeding to Kenya and Somalia.