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‘Our people are struggling simply to survive’: Horn of Africa experiencing worst famine since WWII

Overseas help: Caritas Australia chief executive officer Paul O’Callaghan visiting Kitui, Kenya, where he met communities and families impacted by drought. Photo: Caritas Australia.

FAMINE in the Horn of Africa is shaping as the biggest humanitarian crisis since the Second World War, an Australian Catholic aid expert says.

“It is unnerving when you see the scale of the disaster,” Caritas Australia chief executive officer Paul O’Callaghan, who has just returned from witnessing the plight of malnourished villagers in Kenya, said.

For about 23 million people across seven countries food is scarce and water supplies are drying up.

This month, the bishops of South Sudan, one of the worst affected countries, wrote a joint pastoral letter – a plea to the world for support: “Our people are struggling simply to survive”.

In Brisbane, the Catholic Sudanese community is praying for the suffering to end.

“We always put the people of South Sudan in our prayers,” St Bakhita Sudanese community chaplain Fr Stephen Kumyangi said. “The famine is alarming and claiming many lives.”

In neighbouring Kenya, Mr O’Callaghan visited the village of Kitui, about 150km inland from the Indian Ocean, which has entered its third year of drought, with no feed for cattle, and no chance of a livelihood for its farmers.

“I saw children lined up at a clinic for their regular health checks. I saw one four-year-old girl who had missed out on so much nutrition that she had the weight and height of a three-year-old,” he said.

Mr O’Callaghan said without the right nutrition many children stood little chance of ever recovering.

“The villagers were rationing food, eating one small meal every second day,” he said.

“The outlook is really bleak for these families.

“It is devastating to see and with media focusing on so many other issues in Europe and the United States, there is very little mainstream attention on this issue.”

Part of Mr O’Callaghan’s mission to Africa was to obtain film footage and images that can be used to promote Caritas Australia’s Africa Emergency Appeal for help through parishes and schools across Australia.

After seasons without rain, failed crops and dying livestock, the situation across the vast Horn of Africa is worsened by the ravages of war in South Sudan, Somalia and Yemen.

Food prices have sky-rocketed due to inflation, while climate change is compounding the drought.

“Millions of people are on the verge of starvation due to man-made famine,” Fr Kumyangi said.

“Famine is causing people to die in tens of hundreds, but the media is unable to find out because they are not permitted by the government.

“Roads are impassible because soldiers have set up road blocks.

“In brief, the famine situation is alarming and claiming many lives, while the real situation is hidden from the surface.”

Caritas Australia, in collaboration with the Caritas Internationalis network, is already delivering emergency supplies of food and water in South Sudan, Kenya and Malawi.

“It’s vital for us to do whatever we can to assist before it’s too late and the worst of this large-scale fine becomes entrenched,” Mr O’Callaghan said.

Caritas project co-ordinator Mary Wachira, who works on the ground with communities in South Sudan said: “Caritas’ unique reach through the Church into vulnerable communities means that it is well-placed to support those in need.”

The Caritas strategy is to partner with locally based suppliers.

Often it is working through diocesan networks to deliver food and water through local contractors.

As well, Caritas continues long-term development work so communities can build resilience in the face of future threats.

“When you have no food, you have nothing. We must act before our worst fears are realised,” Ms Wachira said.

To donate to the Africa Emergency Appeal visit the emergency response website or phone 1800 024 413.

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