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East Africa Famine: An Interview with Laura Sheahen and Sara A. Fajardo of Catholic Relief Services

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The famine and drought striking East Africa have created one of the worst humanitarian tragedies of this generation. Thousands of children have starved to death and many more are in grave peril from malnutrition.

Somalis are desperately fleeing into Kenya and Ethiopia in the search for food, only these countries are also suffering from food shortages. With the unrelenting drought, the crisis could get much worse. Children are suffering from severe malnutrition. Aid agencies are struggling to keep up.

At a GIZ hospital at a refugee camp in Kenya, a severely malnourished Somali refugee child receives treatment. (Photo by Laura Sheahen/Catholic Relief Services)

Catholic Relief Services (CRS) is one of the aid groups in a race to save lives. CRS officers Laura Sheahen, who just visited one of the refugee camps in Kenya, and Sara A. Fajardo, took time to discuss the massive relief effort underway.

How is Catholic Relief Services helping the victims of famine and drought in East Africa?

Sara A. Fajardo: To give just a few examples, we are currently helping to feed more than a million people in Ethiopia and have launched projects in Isiolo and Wajir, Kenya and about to launch projects in Mandera where the drought’s impact has been severe. Some of the pastoralist communities living there have lost 50-100 percent of their livestock. These projects include rehabilitating wells, assisting with school-feeding programs and working on conflict mitigation projects between different pastoralist communities who may be trying to access the same limited resources.

In the Dadaab Refugee area we will be working through partners to distribute around 10,000 hygiene kits to arriving refugees. As part of our “do no harm” approach to humanitarian aid, we will also be providing assistance to the host communities surrounding the Dadaab refugee camps. These communities have also been severely impacted by the drought but are often overlooked because of the seemingly more pressing needs of the incoming refugees. Tensions can often flare up when one community perceives another as receiving assistance while they are left to fend for themselves. We will provide them with water and food aid and work with them to help weather the difficult months ahead.

Somali refugees at Dagahaley refugee camp in Dadaab, Kenya. Following a severe drought, many families faced starvation and left Somalia on foot. Thousands of refugees are flooding into Dadaab every week. (Photo by Laura Sheahen/Catholic Relief Services)

Even before this drought hit, Catholic Relief Services was on the ground working to help communities prepare for this current emergency. In Kenya our staff has been working over the past three years alone to provide 91 water points to local communities, helped to create tree nurseries with more than 3.7 million seedlings, worked to get more than 2,500 miles of agricultural terraces built, and provided more than 108,000 female goats to our beneficiaries.

In Ethiopia we’ve worked over the past eight years to fight the effects of recurrent drought by drilling wells 1,000 feet into the earth. In much of Ethiopia, water runs below the surface in underground caverns as deep as 1,000 feet. This water is difficult, but not impossible to access. A recent visit to the field revealed that 95 percent of 28 wells CRS has constructed are still operational. The difference between communities with water sources and those without is remarkable. The livestock are plumper and produce more milk, which in turn means that the people themselves are nourished better. People in these areas rely less on food aid and more on their own means.

You met some of the refugees escaping from Somalia, what are some of the stories they told you about what they have faced?

About William Lambers

William Lambers is the author of several books including Ending World Hunger: School Lunches for Kids Around the World. This book features over 50 interviews with officials from the UN World Food Programme and other charities discussing school feeding programs that fight child hunger. He is also the author of Nuclear Weapons, The Road to Peace: From the Disarming of the Great Lakes to the Nuclear Test Ban Treaty, Open Skies for Peace, The Spirit of the Marshall Plan: Taking Action Against World Hunger, School Lunches for Kids Around the World, The Roadmap to End Global Hunger, From War to Peace and the Battle of Britain. He is also a writer for the History News Service. His articles have been published by newspapers including the Cincinnati Enquirer, Des Moines Register, the New York Times, San Francisco Chronicle, Buffalo News, San Diego Union Tribune, the Providence Journal, Free Lance-Star (VA), the Bakersfield Californian, the Washington Post, Miami Herald (FL), Chicago Sun-Times, the Patriot Ledger (MA), Charleston Sunday Gazette Mail (WV), the Cincinnati Post, Salt Lake Tribune (UT), North Adams Transcript (MA), Wichita Eagle (KS), Monterey Herald (CA), Athens Banner-Herald (GA) and the Duluth News Journal. His articles also appear on History News Network (HNN) and Think Africa Press. Mr. Lambers is a graduate of the College of Mount St. Joseph in Ohio with degrees in Liberal Arts (BA) and Organizational Leadership (MS). He is also a member of the Feeding America Blogger Council.