1. Skip to content
  2. Skip to main menu
  3. Skip to more DW sites

Mounting crisis

July 20, 2011

The Dadaab refugee camps in Kenya are grappling with the arrival of thousands of people fleeing drought and fighting in neighboring Somalia. Many, especially children, fail to survive the long journey.

Family overtaken by wind-blown dust as they build a makeshift shelter on the outskirts of camp near Dadaab
Many Somalis walk for weeks to reach the refugee camps in neighboring KenyaImage: dapd

Some 2,000 people have been arriving every day in Kenya's Dadaab refugee camps from Somalia, Ethiopia and drought-stricken areas in Kenya. Many walk for weeks to get there. Young children, in particular, often don't survive the long journey or succumb to exhaustion and severe malnutrition even after reaching the camps.

The Dadaab camps are currently home to some 350,000 people. Deutsche Welle spoke with David Orr of the United Nations World Food Programme (WFP) in Nairobi to learn more about the current crisis and how it can be prevented or at least reduced in the future.

Deutsche Welle: You have just returned from the refugee camp in the Dadaab region at the border of Kenya and Somalia. What is the situation like there?

David Orr: The situation is extremely serious. We continue to have large numbers of refugees streaming out of Somalia into the camp at Dadaab. Many of them have been walking mostly weeks. They arrive very tired, very hungry, very malnourished. There are high levels of malnutrition especially among the children.

What are their most urgent needs at this time?

David Orr, of the UN World Food Programme in Nairobi
David Orr of the UN World Food Programme in NairobiImage: WFP

The most urgent needs are for food, water and shelter for these people. I will say that despite the huge pressure on the systems in place at the camps, in my experience the refugees were getting access to food and non-food items such as blankets and sleeping mats and some pots and pans within hours after arriving at the reception centers. That is very positive. But after that it gets difficult. The camps are very crowded, and they go out to the outlying areas where there is really nowhere for them to stay. So there they are forced to build little huts of twigs and put some blankets or sheets over them. It is far from ideal. Sanitation and water are all in limited supply.

What kind of people are fleeing to the Dadaab region?

They are mostly pastoralists, which means that they rely for their livelihood on cattle, on camels, sheep and goats. But there are farmers as well. When I was up there, I met a lot of pastoralists or herders who had lost all their animals, and once they have lost those, they have lost everything. So they set out in search of assistance, as do the farmers who have lost their crops because they can no longer feed their families.

Are people still dying in the region?

We hear tales of children particularly dying on the road to the camps. They continue to die sometimes once they have reached the camps. However, as I said, they do get assistance very quickly, and the malnourished children do get access to special nutritional feeding products which build them back up. Once they arrive, they do get that quickly.

Somalis look for food at a camp in Mogadishu
Somalis look for food at a camp in MogadishuImage: dapd

According to reports, there are 10 million people desperately short of food. But this hasn't happened over night. Why isn't the region better prepared?

Obviously, by the time the short rainy season at the end of last year ended, we were clear that those particular rains had been very poor and that the communities in this drought region, mostly pastoralists, were in a vulnerable position. But there were other things that we weren't prepared for. We had no way of knowing there was going to be this huge exodus of refugees. That caught a lot of the world slightly off-guard. To a large extent, the World Food Programme (WFP) does look at activities which build up resilience in vulnerable populations. We made huge investments in water harvesting, erosion control and dam building in many of these communities. I think the truth is that when something like this goes wrong in a crisis, we will always say we haven't done enough. But another factor we have to consider of course is the donor community. Maybe donors should focus more on development than waiting until an emergency occurs.

Humanity often seems to fail badly in responding to early warnings especially when it comes to hunger.

One can never do enough. The world learned a lot from the terrible famine in Ethiopia in the mid-1980s. There hasn't been a famine on that scale since. That is obviously one positive way of looking at things. It is extremely alarming that the incidents of drought seem to be occurring more and more regularly. There was a gap. The general view was that extreme weather events were occurring every 11 years. Then it came down to five or six years. But the last drought in this region occurred in 2007 and 2009. So they do seem to be happening with increasing regularity, undoubtedly as a result of climate change. These are all factors that we have to take into consideration.

What are the constant factors behind global hunger?

We are seeing all of them at play in Somalia at the moment. It is lack of access to food through conflict or insecurity and extreme weather events, in this case famine, but obviously in other parts of the world we have seen earthquakes or tsunamis. And then we have got a third factor that comes into play and that is growing food prices. This has been particularly noticeable in the Horn of Africa in the last year. There have been very high and rising food prices in Ethiopia, in Somalia and also in Kenya. And when you have an already vulnerable population living in a narrowed zone like these people who depend on their animals for their livelihood, high food prices can have a devastating effect.

Somali pastoralists look at the carcasses of their dead animals
Many of the refugees are pastoralists who have lost their animals to famineImage: picture-alliance/dpa

What needs to be done in the short term?

With regard to the refugees, if we could get access to them inside Somalia in the south of the country, that would make life much easier for them and it would aid the humanitarian community greatly. At the moment, we have to treat them within a system when they come out of the country. Of course we will continue to do so and assist them in any way we can. They are getting food relief and other kinds of assistance as soon as they get into the camps. But it is not just in these refugee camps. This is a regional crisis. We estimate there are 10 to 11 million people in need of humanitarian assistance. We are feeding approximately six million people in the Horn of Africa region at the moment, and that number is set to rise. We are prepared and gearing ourselves up to continue assisting growing numbers of people over the coming months.

What needs to change in order to have a sustainable, long term solution?

We all agree that this is a particular crisis and we are not going to be in this position, hopefully, forever. There are lots of systems that can be put into place bearing in mind that climate change would seem to be here to stay for the time being. I mentioned the disaster risk reduction systems that we are building with communities to increase their resilience to climatic and other shocks. This is very much part of our work. We have food for assets programs for example whereby communities build dams, they build water harvesting facilities, and I think this is a very important way to go. We have seen in certain areas like Turkana, for example, in northwestern Kenya that where these systems are put in place, that populations and communities are better able to withstand the effects of extreme weather events like drought.

Interview: Sandra Petersmann
Editor: Louisa Schaefer