Hunger crisis

The lean face of drought in Wajir county, northern Kenya

By Blandina Bobson – Oxfam Monitoring and Evaluation Officer, Wajir, KENYA

The face of drought in Wajir County, in Kenya’s north, is ugly. The land is bare and expansive, multiple whirlwinds sweeping across every now and then, which local myths call ‘the devil’. It is scrawny animals feeding on what seems like invisible grass on the ground or camels browsing on thorny remains of what used to be green leafy bushes. Masses of evidently emaciated livestock hurdling to quench their thirst around water points, after hours-long treks in search of the same. Women will wait patiently in line to fill their jerry cans to take back home.

Dead livestock are a common sight in many parts of Wajir, in northern Kenya, which is in the grip of a severe drought. Photo: Katie G. Nelson/Oxfam

Families have become increasingly vulnerable. Men are struggling to provide for their families, their faces are sad and strained as they stare into the unknown future, while the eyes of women and children dart about in hope whenever ‘visitors’ drop by their villages.

In July, an assessment of the drought crisis in the country revealed that 3.4 million people in Kenya are now severely hungry and need urgent food assistance. Of these, 800,000 were projected to be in a more serious food situation by September.

“I used to buy my children milk but I can’t afford it any more because business is really down. The livestock owners who used to be my customers have migrated with the little livestock they have left,” said Rukia, a widow and a mother of 5 children who runs a small business in Dambas village.

Rukia Billow (24) at a Water ATM – an electronic meter, which makes water available 24 hours a day – in Hadado Town, Northern Kenya.  Photo: Katie G. Nelson/Oxfam

Oxfam – supported by ECHO, the humanitarian arm of the European Union– is providing cash assistance for food, water and other essentials to 3,000 families in parts of Wajir. This assistance complements that of the Kenyan government through the National Drought Management Authority (NDMA), which is now helping over 54,000 families with similar aid. But really this is only a drop in the ocean given the fast deteriorating situation.

Despite offering a reprieve, this aid does not come without its fair share of challenges. Oxfam has spoken with families who have been forced to share part of their monthly cash assistance of KES 2,700 (€25/£23) with those in their communities not directly targeted by the programme, yet are in critical need of help. This is a strong indication that even those that were thought to be less vulnerable have also lost the little muscle they had to deal with the effects of the drought.

Helping the most vulnerable

“We are illiterate and vulnerable, if we raise complaints we might not get our cash,’’ said Kasim Makala, 46-year-old mother of eight, who has previously received similar help.

While we must recognise the efforts of those who are responding to the crisis, there is certainly more that should be done now to ensure that affected communities get the help they need. More resources are urgently required to reach the rising scale of need.

Everyone must play their part. Local, national and international actors must complement the efforts being undertaken by the Kenyan government and humanitarian agencies and ensure that affected communities are able to cope with the effects of the prolonged drought.

Across East Africa, Yemen and north-east Nigeria, some 30 million people are experiencing alarming hunger, surviving only on what they can find to eat. Famine is already likely happening in parts of northern Nigeria, while Yemen and Somalia are on the brink. This is the largest hunger emergency in the world.

Oxfam is there

Oxfam is on the ground in all areas, reaching the most affected with the emergency help they need to survive. We are:

·         Working with local partner organisations who provide emergency food distributions and work with vulnerable people to produce their own food and other income;

·         Providing emergency water and sanitation, to stop the spread of diseases like cholera and diarrhoea;

·         Providing cash and vouchers so people can purchase the food they need to survive;

·         Trucking in urgently-needed water to the worst drought-affected areas;

·         Constructing showers and toilets for those who have been forced to flee their homes.

What you can do now

Helping a Yemeni village fight hunger

Yemen is on the brink of famine after two years of devastating conflict. So far thousands of people have been killed and over 3 million forced to flee their homes. More than half of the country is without enough to eat. We are delivering emergency aid but we urgently need your help to do more.

We drive west through steep rocky terrain, dotted with ancient mountain-top fortresses studded with tall circular towers of rough-hewn stone. Rural Yemen is serene, isolated and medieval. We are heading from Oxfam’s emergency humanitarian office in Khamer, in the northern tribal heartland of Amran governorate, to Othman village on its western edge. 

Othman’s 200 families are battling hunger, like many others across Yemen.

Othman village, in Yemen’s Amran district, where 200 families are fighting hunger. Credit: Mohammed Farah Adam/Oxfam

A perilous drive

The drive is nerve-wracking. Our driver Abdullah says pointedly he has been driving for 10 years around these hairpin turns and vertical cliff-face drops. I think he’s noticed how scared I am.
We wave to some men and women working the tiny cultivated terraces, and to curious child shepherds moving goats and sheep through the sun-baked mountains. 
 
We lose mobile phone reception and modern-day communication. After one and a half hours of a perilous ride over 27 kilometres, we descend into a valley dotted with fields of sorghum (a type of cereal), and to a hamlet of scattered stone dwellings in the cliffs high above the valley floor. 
 
This is Othman village.

Food is scarce

Othman’s people eke out life in stricken conditions. Food is mostly home-made bread and a boiled wild plant known locally as Cissus or Hallas. We’re here to measure how Oxfam’s cash assistance project of €81/£76 per month for each extremely poor family has helped put food on their tables and avert starvation.
 
Boiled, the wild plant Cissus – or Hallas as it is locally known – is the main food along with home-made bread that people eat in Osman village. Credit: Mohammed Farah Adam/Oxfam
 
There were 80 severely malnourished children in Othman. Oxfam set up cash assistance projects around the Khamer district, with other agencies, to buttress their battle against starvation. The children got health treatment from our partners, while Oxfam gave cash to the most desperate of the families here. We also ran a programme to raise their awareness about malnutrition and good hygiene. 

No teachers for the schools

At Othman school, a frail old man whirls black prayer beads through his fingers, leaning against the wall of a classroom. The school rooms are now only used for community meetings. There are no teachers in Othman. 
 
The village announcer shouts out over the loudspeaker: “Oxfam is here to monitor the conditions of the malnourished children.” Curious folk join us. Parents have dressed their children, who before had been on the brink of death, in their very best clothes. They seem well on the mend. Over the four-month duration of our cash assistance project in Othman we’ve reduced malnutrition by 62%.
 
Though pale, these children are no longer on the verge of starvation.

You’ve saved our lives

Nine-month-old Mohamed Amin, the youngest of five siblings and still tiny, is cradled by his father. He has certainly been saved from an early unnecessary death, by a small assistance.
 
Crammed into a classroom, we ask about Oxfam’s work. How many times do you eat a day? How is the baby’s condition? What do you do for a living? And so on.
 
Rabee Qassem holds his young daughter while worrying for her future. He's one of thousands that used to receive Oxfam's cash assistance in Amran governorate. Credit: Mohammed Farah Adam/Oxfam
 
Children smirk at my Arabic as their parents take turn in answering. Others nod along.
 
“Your assistance saves our lives,” says Rabee Qassem, holding his young daughter.

The effects of war

Many of these villagers used to work on small farm plots along the valley but their incomes were so meagre they could no longer afford their essential needs when the price of basic commodities skyrocketed due to the conflict and the de-facto blockade of Yemen.  
 
Since the war exploded open in March 2015, more than 10,000 Yemenis have been killed and 17 million people – 60 percent of the population – do not now have enough to eat. More than 7 million of them are a step away from famine. 
 
As they were here in Othman. 

Hope for peace

I ask the mother of 10-month-old Marwan about her hopes. She takes a deep breath, a moment of silence as she gathers her thoughts, and tears well up. “Peace! My only hope is peace,” she says. Others nod. 
 
At the end of our meeting, I had to announce the news. “We have run out of money to continue the cash assistance.” 
 
Their banter dies down to silence. “But why? Our situation is still miserable,” Mohamed Amin’s father says. 
 
“The cash assistance project was funded by donors for only a specific period of time, which has come to an end. We are still looking for more donor funds but we haven’t secured any yet,” I explain. “We know your situation and we are doing our best.” 
 
“Thank you. God will help,” says the old man with the beads.
 
An Oxfam water distribution point. Photo: Moayed Al.Shaibani/Oxfam
 
It is a wretched time. Our programme was funded for four-months and – although this was made clear at the start – the people of Othman are dismayed now and afraid. It’s my job to start winding-down this part of our work now that we only have a month left of funding toward it. 
 
We hoped to maintain it. We tried. It saved their lives. But the cruel truth is that earlier this year, the big aid donors made the tough decision to triage their money only to governorates that were at “level 4” emergency status – that is, one level below famine. 
 
Although still itself in an emergency situation as a village, Othman is part of a governorate – Amran – that is classified overall as “level 3”. Therefore, there are other governorates which are, overall, in worse straits. 
 
Othman no longer makes the cut. 
 
This is exactly what we mean when we say Yemen is an “overwhelming” crisis. Our unconditional cash transfer projects are immediate life-savers; last year Oxfam ran cash transfer projects worth nearly €3.3 million/£3 million, to more than 7,100 families in Yemen (the Othman project cost about €27k/£25k, by way of example). 
 
But these are typically short-term and irregular projects, and with the constant funding pressure we’re forced to keep tightening our criteria of people we can help to only the most desperate.

Stand with Yemen

Over the last two years, Oxfam has provided humanitarian assistance to more than 130,000 people in the most dire humanitarian needs in Khamer and in three other neighbouring districts. We enable vulnerable communities to access water through the rehabilitation of rural and urban water networks. 
 
We’ve invested in rain-water harvesting, repaired water networks, and provided fuel, sanitation services, solid waste management and hygiene promotion. We’ve given out winter clothes to families living in open displacement camps, helping their children to survive freezing weather. 
 
With heavy hearts, we leave Othman and its children and their parents.
 
Oxfam is still running a cholera response project there, including distributing hygiene kits, but our cash assistance work in Othman is done – at least for now – decided for us, because there are “worse” priorities elsewhere.
 
I hope Othman’s people survive. I hope they can eventually thrive. I hope that donors can find more funding and expand the humanitarian work to the scale it needs to be, including back into the pockets of desperation like Othman. 
 
I hope Yemen can achieve peace. 

What you can do now

South Sudan's Independence Day should have been a celebration

Blog post by Christina Corbett, Oxfam Press Officer, South Sudan.

The 9th of July 2017 was Independence Day in South Sudan. A day that should have seen celebrations, festivities, smiles and laughter to mark six years of the world’s newest country. But not this year. Nor any year since the country’s conflict started in December 2013. It’s a time of sombre reflection.

South Sudan has spent the most recent half of its short life in conflict. The fighting has caused hunger so catastrophic that in February, the world’s first famine in six years – South Sudan’s lifespan - was declared.

I just got back from Padding, in northern Jonglei close to the Ethiopian border – a village in the ‘back of the back of beyond’, as one colleague told me. The village is so remote and inaccessible that food is dropped from planes and distributed by Oxfam staff on the ground to people in need. The last food drop was six months ago. This time the United Nations World Food Programme were delivering sorghum, beans, oil and fortified flour.

(L) Nyarek Kuajien spends her days in Pangob trying to cultivate a small patch of garden and collecting the leaves of trees and grass that grow during the rainy season. (R) Air food drop in northern Jonglei, South Sudan. Photo: Albert Gonzales/Oxfam

I met people who had come from Padding and around – people who had fled from fighting. I saw that people don’t care that the country is six years old – they only care whether their children will see six years of life, or if their struggle to feed their families will see them slide into starvation.

Padding routinely gets cut off from everywhere. It’s in the middle of a swamp that becomes wet and impassable during the rainy season. It takes a day to walk to Lankien, the nearest town and the nearest functioning market. But this market is under pressure. Sorghum – a staple, used to make “walwal”, a thick paste – has jumped in price from 700 South Sudanese Pounds (SSP) (€5/£4) in April 2017, to 13,000 SSP today. It is too much for people to afford even a handful.

Before March 2017 – when the brutal conflict between government and opposition forces hit this part of the country – 9,000 people were living in Padding village. Life was not bad. There were gardens that people cultivated, people had cattle. Now things are different.

Padding has nearly doubled in size with people who have fled from fighting. Nyarek Kuajien*, a mother who had fled with her nine children from Khorfulus, near Malakal, about 160km away, told me: “We saw the fighters coming and when they came we ran. We ran with nothing, absolutely nothing. We came to Pangob [a village near Padding] and told the village chief that we had run from fighting. He gave us some land to settle on.”

Now Nyarek spends her days trying to cultivate a small patch of garden and collecting the leaves of trees and grass that grow during the rainy season. She knows that some of the things she gathers make her children ill. “It can’t be good – but I just do whatever I can to keep life going. I get water from the swamp. When I was at home I had everything.”

Nyarek desperately wants water and food. She wants soap to clean clothes, even bed sheets to lie on – she wants the things that she had before the conflict started. Six years of independence means nothing to her. The last few years have taken more than they’ve given.

Until the South Sudanese have peace there will be nothing to celebrate. The governments of neighbouring countries and the wider international community must increase political pressure to stop this violent conflict. Oxfam will continue to work in the most difficult places – places where they have never seen such dire need. But aid alone won’t solve the problem.

Nyarek told me about her village and about returning there.

“I am not willing to go back,” she said. “People are no longer there. I don’t want to be alone.” The people of South Sudan must not be left alone.

Nyarek and her countrymen and women need the same international solidarity shown when the country was ushered into being. And they need it now more than ever before.

Following the power crisis that erupted in Juba in 2013, South Sudan has spiralled into a national, political and ethnic conflict, quickly spreading across many parts of the country and leading to the death of thousands of women, children and men.

Since then, 3.8 million people have been forced to flee their homes due to the brutal war. 7.5 million people are now in need of humanitarian assistance. Over 45 per cent of the population – more than 5.5 million people – are severely hungry. Oxfam is racing to get food, water and hygiene items to the most vulnerable people, including thousands who have fled to remote islands in the middle of huge swamps. In 2016 we reached over 600,000 with emergency and longer-term support. We are also responding to the refugee crisis regionally in Uganda, Ethiopia, Democratic Republic of Congo and Chad.

What you can do now

Millions of men, women and children are in need of urgent help in South Sudan, Somalia, Ethiopia, Kenya, Nigeria and Yemen. We urgently need your help to feed families and help save lives.

Famine in South Sudan has ceased, but hunger has spread

Written by Corrie Sissons, Oxfam's Food Security and Emergency Livelihoods Coordinator in South Sudan

The recent declaration that famine in South Sudan has been halted was rightly celebrated.  Any steps towards ending the catastrophic humanitarian crisis facing South Sudan are welcome, as the war torn country marked its sixth birthday last Sunday (9th July 2017). 

However, dig deeper than the headlines and it becomes clear that hunger is actually getting worse almost everywhere in the country. How do we applaud the collective effort to end famine including the very generous public donations, yet simultaneously highlight that this does not herald a significant improvement in an ongoing food crisis? Life is more desperate now than ever for millions of people. 

Above: Top Left - Mothers in South Sudan fled their homes with their children to find safety. Photo: Corrie Sissons/Oxfam. Top-right & Bottom - Oxfam has been helping island and mainland communities to set up vegetable gardens both to boost their own diets and to build up their livelihoods. Photo: Tim Bierley/Oxfam

Famine is a technical description, declared if certain specific conditions are observed. But for individuals, hunger is hunger. Just because we call it something else it does not mean that people have enough to eat again or that help is no longer required. People are suffering however it is designated and we still have so much work to do. 

Although things have become less severe in those famine affected areas, the scale of the food crisis across other parts of South Sudan has exploded. Since the famine was declared in February, ongoing conflict and its consequences – people fleeing their homes, economic decline and poor harvests – have left one million more people facing severe food shortages. If predictions are correct, by the end of July 2017, half of the entire South Sudanese population will live without knowing how they can feed their families from one evening to the next. 

There are still approximately 45,000 people who live in what are described ‘famine-like conditions’ in South Sudan. This essentially means conditions are catastrophically bad but the data for the area they live in doesn’t match technical requirements for it to be called a famine. Forced to flee their homes and fields, people have also missed the planting season. Even when they stay, many are too afraid to tend to fields. So seeds do not grow and harvests are smaller and smaller each year that this situation continues. The conflict is not only robbing people of the food on their plates now, but also in the future.

For  example in the former Jonglei state, a recent upsurge in fighting has forced more than 200,000 people from their homes, disrupting lives and obstructing access to the aid when they need it the most. People are walking for days to flee the fighting, with only wild foods to eat along the way.  

Famine and the unacceptable levels of hunger are direct consequences of the decisions made by those with the power to stop the war. As South Sudan marks six years of independence, it is critical that life-saving assistance is combined with diplomatic efforts to bring warring parties back to the table to revive negotiations for peace. It is clear that only real and lasting peace can bring people back from the brink of starvation. Until that happens, we must continue giving vital aid to stop the situation getting even worse.

Right now Oxfam is there in South Sudan, urgently working to get live-saving aid like food and water to those in need, as well as hygiene supplies to stop the spread of deadly disease. It cannot be clearer to those on the ground: South Sudan is not having a moment of respite in its food crisis. Hunger is spiralling out of control. 

Corrie Sissons is Oxfam's Food Security and Emergency Livelihoods Coordinator in South Sudan

 

Yemen: The story of a war-affected people, strong in the face of adversity

A moving first-hand account of the effects of the conflict Yemen has been suffering over the past few years, but a call to remain hopeful that peace will come.

As the sun rises, covering the rocky mountains with a coat of gold, we are welcomed to Yemen by fishermen and dolphins jumping out of the blue water.

After a 14-hour boat journey from Djibouti, the view of Aden city in the early morning was a magical sight. At first, life in the city looked normal: road dividers were freshly painted, people were chatting while sipping red tea or having breakfast in small restaurants, young people were playing pool in the streets, and taxis were shouting to collect their passengers. However, as we moved into the city, buildings riddled with bullet holes appeared, several residential areas and hotels had collapsed rooves and cars were waiting in long queues for petrol.

Ghodrah and Taqeyah fill their jerry cans from the Oxfam water distribution point in Al-Dukm village, Lahj governorate. Credit: Omar Algunaid/Oxfam

This tableau of contrasts was telling the story of Aden.

The second day after our arrival, we travelled to Lahj with the Aden team. Our conversation kept switching between the work Oxfam does in Aden and other Southern governorates, and the destruction passing before our eyes, a terrible witness of the conflict Yemen has been suffering for the past few years.

OXFAM IS THERE

In such a volatile and insecure environment, Oxfam continues to provide water, improved sanitation and basic hygiene assistance to more than 130,000 affected individuals in Lahj governorate. The team sometimes travels for more than two to three hours to reach the target location. Community engagement is thus key to deliver assistance. Our staff along with community based volunteers consults affected community as well as key leaders to identify the intervention. The affected community not only participates in water supply, sanitation and hygiene promotion activities, but also works closely with host communities to ensure that social harmony is maintained.  

In Lahj, the focus is to rebuild the water supply system to help both displaced people as well as local communities, and Oxfam works with the local water and sanitation authority to ensure the sustainability and viability of the rehabilitated system. Displaced people in these areas used to collect water only once in a week because of the long distances they had to walk to reach the wells. Now, both Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) and host communities can access water on a daily basis.

Meeting community members made it clear that war has impacted everyone, and they all share their grief and pain and support each other. The strong bond between displaced people and host communities despite their high level of hardship also indicates that Yemeni people have come a long way through several wars and conflict and are therefore more resilient.

Water tank built by Oxfam in Al-Jalilah village, in Al-Dhale governorate. Credit: Omar Algunaid/Oxfam

HUNGER IS RAMPANT

The impact of war and conflict in Aden and surrounding governorates is very high. More than two million people were affected since the beginning of the crisis. Food insecurity in Lahj, Abyan and Al Dhale is rising.

The tragedy and suffering of Abdullah, a 70-year-old man who had to flee Abyan during the peak of the war, speaks for itself. He does believe that peace will return back to Yemen, but to survive, he had to mortgage his pension card to feed his family. There are many invisible people like him who would like to see peace come back to Yemen so their impoverished lives can improve.

DISPLACEMENT CRISIS

Resilient host communities initially provided spaces to people on the move, but now those displaced have started settling down in barren land areas on their own as well. Water, food and healthcare remain the top three priorities. Hardship has reached such a level that people are willing to mortgage anything and everything they can. Basic services and utilities including water, education and health have been halted to a greater extent and this increases stress on affected communities. 

Oxfam Yemen Country Director, Sajjad Mohammad Sajid, visits the pumping room in Al-Roweed village, as part of the water project Oxfam implemented in the area. Also there, Al-Melah district Manager and members of the water management committee. Credit: Omar Algunaid/Oxfam

FIGHTING CHOLERA

Saleema* is community health volunteer who works with Oxfam and is a true agent for change. She raises awareness with the affected communities on the importance of clean and safe water.  She visits houses and speaks to women, elders and young girls to ensure key health messages are understood and applied. Increasing numbers of young people like Saleema are supporting affected communities to rebuild their lives and to help build social cohesion. 

RESILIENCE IN THE FACE OF DARKNESS

As we returned from Lahj, the smell and taste of Mindi (local chicken and rice meal) and local paratha (wheat based chapati) reminded us that the Yemeni are resilient, standing strong in the face of adversity.

As the Apollo boat departed Aden after sunset, with the noise of waves gushing in and the darkness setting in, we remembered that a beautiful sunrise would welcome us upon arrival at our next destination. We remain hopeful that peace will arise in Yemen after the war’s darkness.

Please help us support people facing famine in Yemen and beyond by donating to our hunger crisis appeal.

Sajjad Mohammad Sajid, Oxfam Yemen’s Country Director.

*Name changed to protect identity.

Yemen is in the grip of a runaway cholera epidemic that is killing one person nearly every hour and if not contained will threaten the lives of thousands of people in the coming months. We're calling for a massive aid effort and an immediate ceasefire to allow health and aid workers to tackle the outbreak.

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