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News: Save the Children cautions over soaring child malnutrition across east, south-eastern Ethiopia

On 26 April, 2022, At Higlo IDP site, where thousands of drought-affected people are staying, a health worker measures the arm of a child to assess his nutrition status. Severe drought in the Horn of Africa is pushing communities to the brink. With chronic food shortages, malnutrition is on the rise. ©UNICEF Ethiopia/2022/Zerihun Sewunet

Addis Abeba – Malnutrition rates across east and south-eastern Ethiopia have soared in recent months as drought, displacement and conflict take their toll with about 185,000 children now estimated to be suffering from the most deadly form of malnutrition, Save the Children said.

A prolonged drought combined with the disruption of health services due to instability, the  COVID-19 pandemic, and a lack of funding has left over a million people requiring urgent nutrition support across the Somali, Oromia, SNNP and South-West regions.

Extreme malnutrition is expected to worsen in coming months as food prices continue to rise due to the devaluation of the Ethiopian birr and the war in Ukraine, while pastoral families’ livestock continues to be devalued as one of the worst droughts in history in the Horn of Africa decimates their herds.

In the Somali region in Eastern Ethiopia, one of the worst affected by the drought, malnutrition rates over the past 12 months have risen by 64%, with an increase of 43% between January and April 2022 alone. Cumulative cases of severe acute malnutrition – the most deadly form of malnutrition in children – reached nearly 50,000 in the same three months.

Severe acute malnutrition is a life-threatening condition requiring urgent treatment. It also significantly weakens children’s immune systems, which often means any additional medical complications or infections prove deadly. 

In the Dawa zone of the Somali region Save the Children staff have observed that much of the pastoral nomadic community is ‘at the brink of starvation’. Admission rates for the treatment of malnutrition at Save the Children nutrition centers increased by more than 320% from September 2021 to January 2022. Families are reporting that many children are only being fed one meal per day.

In the Shabelle zone of the Somali region, another area hard hit by drought and hunger, unusual animal behavior has been reported by farming communities, including monkeys attacking children and livestock out of hunger.

Ahmed*, 40, is a father of seven who lives in the Somali region of Ethiopia. Ahmed recently lost his livestock in the drought, and so left his village with his children in search of food and water. Ahmed said:“I do not know how to feed my children. The rain failed. The grass withered. My sheep and goats died, along with hundreds and thousands of animals from our village. We packed our meager possessions on the donkey cart and set out at midnight.”

In the south and the east, prolonged drought continues to expand and devastate lives and livelihoods, with about 8.1 million people in Ethiopia now impacted. Across the country, close to 30 million people – or a quarter of the population – are estimated to be in need of humanitarian assistance including 12 million children.

“A prolonged, expanding, and debilitating drought is grinding away at their resilience, already worn down by a grueling conflict and two years of the COVID-19 pandemic.”

Xavier Joubert

Ethiopia and other Horn of Africa countries – Somalia and Kenya- are suffering from a severe climate crisis-induced drought.  More than 23 million people are experiencing extreme hunger across the three countries with 5.8 Million children acutely malnourished.

Xavier Joubert, Save the Children’s Country Director in Ethiopia, said: Children – especially small children – are bearing the brunt of a harrowing and multifaceted crisis in Ethiopia. A prolonged, expanding, and debilitating drought is grinding away at their resilience, already worn down by a grueling conflict and two years of the COVID-19 pandemic.”

Joubert further said that “sadly, in 2022, the crisis in Ethiopia grew in complexity and scale. In the south and the east, prolonged drought is devastating lives and livelihoods; in the north, millions of displaced families barely have access to food, health services, livelihoods; and in the southwest, a hidden conflict is displacing hundreds of thousands.”

“Families who have fled drought or conflict have left with very little, some only with their children and clothes on their backs. Though some families are returning home, they find their houses, hospitals, and schools damaged or destroyed, and their livelihoods lost.”

Save the Children is urgently calling on donors for new funds to meet the needs of children and their families across Ethiopia. The child rights’ agency was one of the first organizations to work in the conflict in the north, and have response plans throughout the country. 

Save the Children teams in the Somali and Oromia regions are helping thousands of families impacted by drought, but additional funding is urgently needed to expand activities to match the exponential humanitarian needs.

Save the Children has been operating in Ethiopia for over 60 years and was amongst the first respondents to the conflict in Tigray, Amhara and Afar regions, while continuing humanitarian assistance to the prolonged humanitarian crises in Oromia and Somali regions. The organization’s work is heavily anchored on health and nutrition  as well as life-saving water and sanitation assistance, protection services, education support, and cash and in-kind distributions to the most vulnerable children and their families.

*Names changed to protect identities

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