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Containing Hunger in the Horn of Africa

International aid agencies are offering sobering assessments on hunger: ActionAid says over 700 million people face chronic hunger. Oxfam says up to 17 million of them are in the Horn of Africa. Some analysts are wondering if the Horn, already experiencing acute malnutrition in certain areas, could progress toward famine. Reporter William Eagle talked to some experts about the issue.

Rising food prices, drought and conflict are contributing to increased hunger. In several areas of the Horn of Africa there are precursors to famine, including acute malnutrition, the sale of family assets like livestock to purchase food, and even the movement of families and villages in search of sustenance.

Chris Leather is a humanitarian coordinator for Oxfam.

"Somalia is a particular area of concern," he says. "It is already a huge humanitarian emergency where there [are] high rates of acute malnutrition, large-scale displacement, breakdown of social structures, and people are detached from any means of earning a living. All these factors mean it is a massive humanitarian emergency with difficulties in providing humanitarian assistance."

The World Food Program says an estimated 3.5 million people will need emergency food and medical assistance in Somalia.

Other areas of the Horn of Africa in similar circumstances include parts of Ethiopia, Darfur province in Sudan and parts of northern Uganda and Kenya.

In southern Ethiopia, up to six million people need emergency food relief in several regions, including the Oromiya Somali regions and the Southern Nations, Nationalities and People's Region (SNNPR).

In a recent report of the UN News Agency (IRIN) [], a farmer in Tigray province explains that effect of the high price of foods on his family. Kahsay Beyen said he used to sell his ox for up to US $80 [between 600 and 800 birr], but even that cannot match the price of a bag of teff used for making bread. It now costs $120 per bag [12,00 birr]. He says may have to sell his 10 sheep to pay for food. The drought has already killed all seven of his young lambs.

The insufficient rainfall over the last year means a shortages of staples like barley, potatoes and maize.

Bjorn Ljungqvist is the UNICEF representative for Ethiopia.

"People who normally get 30 to 50 percent of their food supplies from short rains," he says, "are failing to get that essential complimentary foods because the food prices have gone up and there is nothing really to buy for it. There is nothing to substitute for the loss of their own harvest with food on the market because of the growing food prices. That is why things are evolving rather quickly."

Severe food shortages are also present in Zimbabwe, parts ofKenya and the Karamoja region of Uganda.

But some say so far, humanitarian agencies have been able to prevent the situation from reaching the level of famine.

Mohamed Suleiman is the representative in the Horn of Africa for the Famine Early Warning System, or FEWSNET. The group, which is funded by USAID, uses satellite images and other information to study changes in conditions that could indicate growing hunger or even potential famine. The organization shares its findings with national governments and humanitarian agencies.

"There is a lot of early warning information around, a lot of communication," he says. "Now the biggest problem we have is Somalia, where we have a host of major problems like conflict, insecurity widespread in the south and drought conditions in south-central region, hyper inflation, displacement, high malnutrition rates. [Despite] all that, there is humanitarian activity going on -- diaspora support through remittances, and the ability to move [to better areas]. People can go into camps and across borders."

Suleiman says the Horn is experiencing severe food insecurity but he does not expect widespread starvation or famine in any of the countries of the Horn this year.