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Relief Agency Warns of Tipping Point in Horn of Africa

A relief agency warns that failed harvests and high food prices have pushed the Horn of Africa to the "tipping point." ActionAid says millions face hunger and destitution in Ethiopia, Kenya, Somalia, Eritrea and Djibouti; it says if nothing is done, the situation could "easily become catastrophic."

Roger Yates, head of emergencies for ActionAid, spoke from London to VOA English to Africa Service reporter Joe De Capua about the region being at a tipping point.

"What we mean is that unless the people get the help they need now they're really going to fall into absolute despair – ultimately people could die or be forced to move from their homes to survive. What we see at this point in any crisis is unless you get the right help in at the right time, it takes much, much longer to recover," he says.

The right kind of help.

Yates says, "It's very simply food aid. People need food to get them through, but in addition, in some areas where wells have dried they need water delivered…. Schools have been forced to close for lack of water. So lots of people have lost their crops because of the late rains or failure of the early rains. And so distributing seeds might allow some people to get a crop in the rains that are happening now," he says.

Livestock also need assistance. "What you get when the animals are weak through lack of good grazing and concentrated around water holes is that disease spreads very fast. So getting vaccinations and medicines for animals and spraying to prevent the increasing spread of army worm, the pest which are destroying crops," he says.

What's more, as the animals become weak their value sharply declines.

Soaring food prices make matters worse.

He says, "This simply compounds the vulnerability that people face. If you're just living on a knife edge (and) are very poor and you get a bad harvest, you might be able to just about survive, unless the price of those basic foods has increased by 50 percent.

Yates says emergency aid is probably needed for the next three to four months. But he says longer term programs require more than food, such as "giving people more opportunity for diverse agriculture, making sure that they can get crops. And making sure that there's better warning of pests and things like this."

Over recent years, there have been many calls and proposals for programs to help Horn of Africa countries deal with a lack of rain or drought. Yet problems persist. Yates says, "I think in these cases there's a multitude of reasons. First and foremost is a skewed development pattern so that some areas are getting more development and others less. So, we need the political will to focus on the most vulnerable areas and very often those are much harder to work in. So, it can seem tempting to get a better result with less money in one area. But that just increases the inequality of development in such areas."