At the therapeutic feeding center of Balbala, in the outskirts of the capital city Djibouti, Abdelfattah, 20 months old, looks suspiciously at the visitors who have just walked in.
As he swallows spoonfuls of what looks like thin sorghum porridge that his mother is slowly feeding him, Abdelfattah seems a picture of perfect health. And yet just a month and a half ago, his mother didn’t think he was going to make it.
Abdelfattah was referred to the UNICEF-supported feeding centre when he was diagnosed with malnutrition in the neighbourhood’s health clinic. For the past six weeks, his mother Asha, a Somali refugee who has lived in Djibouti for four years, has brought him to the centre daily to feed him a fortified porridge of wheat soy blend, a nutritional supplement for children with malnutrition.
The centre usually receives up to 30 children a month, but numbers shot up during the month of July, with 150 children receiving the life-saving supplement. Some of them are children of Somali refugees who have been living in Djibouti for years, others are children from the host community of Balbala.
Staff at the centre go door-to-door in the community to identify cases of malnutrition and urge families to bring their children for treatment.
Millions of children in the Horn of Africa are fighting malnutrition. In Djibouti, a country of less than 865,000 people, malnutrition is chronic, but has reached particularly high levels this year. In the poorer neighbourhoods of the main urban areas, rates of moderate malnutrition tripled from May 2010 to May 2011, affecting approximately 26,000 children.
“A combination of high food and fuel prices, recurrent drought and chronic water shortages is clearly exacting a heavy toll on children’s health and well-being,” said Josefa Marrato, UNICEF Representative in Djibouti.
Somali refugees in Djibouti, whether long-term residents or new arrivals, are some of the most affected. At the Ali Addeh refugee camp, nearly three hours by road from the capital, some 17,000 refugees have sought refuge from the violence and drought wrecking their homeland. About 20 per cent of the camp population are children under five.
Mohamed Dhaher Hussein, 8, has been living in the camp for three years, along with his parents and seven siblings. He goes to the camp school, but now during the summer break, he spends his time running around and playing with his friends.
“I want to be a teacher when I grow up,” he says. “I want to teach back home in Somalia.”
But for the thousands of Somalis in Djibouti, and elsewhere, there will no homecoming any time soon. Conflict, the drought and now famine are pushing more and more Somalis away from their homes – to Kenya, Ethiopia and Djibouti.
At the Ali Addeh camp, their numbers keep increasing – from more than 400 new arrivals in June, to over 800 in July, and nearly 600 during the first half of August. As more and more people keep coming in, water supplies are running low and malnutrition rates are going up.
UNICEF is supporting humanitarian interventions in the camp, by increasing the water capacity to meet additional needs, and supplying the ready-to-use therapeutic food necessary for children with malnutrition.
Beyond the camp, UNICEF is distributing emergency supplies for the treatment of malnutrition and is increasing access to safe drinking water through water trucking.
UNICEF has also extended an ongoing Conditional Cash Transfer programme to increase livelihood support to 217 households across Djibouti Ville for a three-month period. Under the programme, families with orphans and vulnerable children receive direct cash assistance in return for making sure their children go to school and are fed at least two meals a day.
Najwa Mekki, UNICEF Regional Office for the Middle East and North Africa