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Michael Klosson

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We Can Make a Difference in the Horn of Africa -- Right Now and for Good

Posted: 07/22/11 02:42 PM ET

In my daily American life, rain has often struck me as an inconvenience. Will I get soaked walking to the metro? Will I have to cancel that weekend bike ride?

After three weeks in East Africa, I can only view such worries for the luxuries they are. Right now, rain and its prolonged absence have become a matter of life and death for children and families across the Horn of Africa. They're experiencing the region's worst drought in 60 years. More than ten million people are already affected. The number is rising, and the world's response is not keeping pace.

Hardworking families who depend on the land have lost their crops and their livestock. How can they feed their children? Many simply cannot. Growing numbers of children are so malnourished they could easily die. Some already are. More are sure to follow. Refugee camp populations are exploding and it's a struggle to keep up with mounting demand.

This is an extreme emergency. Families need help immediately. We must deliver relief quickly to save lives and end suffering. At the same time, we should also look ahead. We must help East Africa build resilence to withstand future emergencies. Major droughts are becoming increasingly extreme and common with climate change.

That's hardly the fault of mothers like Dero, who I met at a refugee camp in Ethiopia. With a baby strapped to her chest and three gaunt and numb children huddled between her and her husband, Dero told me that life had been peaceful in part of Somalia where they had lived. But the drought had killed off their goats one by one, leaving them with no means to support themsleves. They felt they had no choice but to seek refuge and leave their country.

Unlike many who had to walk for weeks to reach refugee camps, Dero's family had a little money to travel by truck. It took five bumpy days to reach Ethiopia, which has welcomed refugees, and Dero called finding a place to settle "our salvation." But a huge influx of arrivals meant her family had to wait three weeks to register with the government and be screened by the United Nations High Commission of Refugees before they could enter a tent camp.

Dero's family had nothing left to eat, and many days their hosts didn't have enough food to distribute. The family either went without or depended on other refugees who generously spared a little of their remaining food.

With help from generous Americans, Save the Children has now begun feeding a simple but nutritious porridge to children and vulnerable mothers caught up in the bottleneck. Other partners are also racing to fill the gaps.

In the meantime, the World Health Organization reports that at the newest refugee camp in Ethiopia called Kobe -- one that opened even before enough tents were set up -- severely malnourished children are regularly dying, with death rates seven times higher than normal.

The next rains not expected until October, so things will get worse before they get better. The United States and other donors must rapidily scale up assistance to East Africa, including providing vital food assistance directly and and through support for the World Food Program. Congress should ensure full funding of these programs, and reverse cuts enacted by House committees. Many lives are at stake.

Nutrition, of course, is not the only need. Shelter, water and sanitation, and health are also urgent, especially for the refugees. Women and children are highly vulnerable in the camps, and they must be protected from violence and exploitation. Children also need help coping with being uprooted from home. In the somber and dusty landscape of the older camps, I visited several oases of hope where the idea of better days ahead seemed to still survive. In classrooms and youth clubs supported by Ethiopian authorities and Save the Children, the sound of animated children laughing struck me almost as precious as water.

Hope for the future must also include helping communities prepare for future crises on a dramatically new scale. Together with local communities, governments in the region should develop a holistic climate adaptation plan for development in dry land areas. And the international community should back the process with climate change adaptation funding.

Since the drought and famine of decades ago, the world has learned a lot about early warning systems and working with communities to build sustainable agriculture. Let's put this knowledge to far greater use.

The United Nations declaration of famine in Somalia should rally the world community to act without delay to save lives now. Let's also ensure, before the next big famine hits, that early warnings will trigger earlier action and that communities can build the resilience needed to avert disaster.