U.N. struggles to cope with E. Africa drought

Somali girls hide behind their veils as they wait with their family to receive ration cards in Dagahaley Camp, outside Dadaab, Kenya, Monday, July 11, 2011. U.N. refugee chief Antonio Guterres said Sunday that drought-ridden Somalia is the "worst humanitarian disaster" in the world. AP Photo/Rebecca Blackwell

GENEVA — U.N. officials sounded the alarm Tuesday about a deepening humanitarian crisis in East Africa caused by a severe drought and fighting in Somalia, and warned that tens of thousands of children are at risk of dying.

The U.N. children's agency, UNICEF, said 65,000 children in Kenya alone are at acute risk of dying — a threefold increase since 2009. In Somalia, the agency said, one in six children are now dying before their fifth birthday.

Children are suffering the worst effects of malnutrition and exhaustion on the long foot journeys through the sunbaked region.

Meanwhile, the World Health Organization has warned that the movement of people and poor sanitation in overcrowded camps and towns is increasing the risk of cholera, typhoid and measles epidemics.

Overall some 10 million people in northern Kenya, Ethiopia, Somalia, Eritrea and South Sudan require emergency assistance across the region because of the worst regional drought in 60 years, the global body said.

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Adrian Edwards, a spokesman for the United Nations refugee agency, said the U.N. is unable to say how many people are on the move in East Africa right now but "we don't see things turning a corner yet."

Thousands of Somalis are arriving at the Dadaab camp in neighboring Kenya each week, he said. The camp, already the world's largest, has swelled to hold almost 400,000 in recent months. Others are fleeing to nearby Ethiopia, where conditions are increasingly chaotic.

"We are in a situation where we are struggling to keep up with the volume of new arrivals," Edwards told reporters in Geneva.

The World Food Program said Tuesday it was urgently scaling up food deliveries. But WFP Executive Director Josette Sheeran said the agency must come up with $189 million more in donations to cover the $477 million that it needs to meet needs in the region known as the Horn of Africa.

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Sheeran also warned that the current crisis might become a permanent problem as climate change is affecting weather patterns in the region.

"Communities that used to have the relative luxury of several years of regular rainfall to recover from the occasional year of drought are now learning to live in an almost constant state of food insecurity due to a lack of water," she said.

Shamsul Bari, the U.N.'s independent expert on human rights in Somalia, said in a statement Tuesday that the situation is "markedly worse" than in March, when he complained the world was slow to react, and that thousands of Somalis are fleeing to Ethiopia, Kenya, and Djibouti every day.

Bari called for donors to immediately step in to provide broad assistance in the Horn of Africa, including war-scarred Somalia that is experiencing "the most acute humanitarian tragedy in the world today."

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