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Nutrition makes a difference


The drought continues across East Africa, where Australian Red Cross aid worker Hilary Floate works with the International Committee of the Red Cross and local National Societies to ensure that children and their families, who have little or no access to medical care, food or clean water, can find help.

The drought affecting the East African countries of Kenya and Somalia is almost beyond words, with the UN estimating that more than 13.3 million people have been in need of humanitarian assistance in recent months.

"The needs are great. Red Cross alone cannot meet the needs of everyone; however we are making a difference," says Hilary Floate, a nutritionist working with the International Red Cross Red Crescent Movement in Kenya and Somalia. Red Cross is helping hundreds of thousands of people meet their basic needs of food and water, sanitation, health, shelter and livelihoods.

Hilary explains that the lack of land cultivation and subsequent lack of harvesting in the past two rainy seasons has forced people to move from their homes in search of help. Often people move to urban centres such as Somalia's capital, Mogadishu, where humanitarian assistance can reach them. However, this large-scale movement has a detrimental effect on both displaced and host communities, who are already vulnerable. Access to income and health care is limited and services are already severely overstretched.

"Pastoralist populations have had to sell their livestock at discount prices to be able to meet household expenditures and agronomist populations have consumed any food stocks that they had several months ago," says Hilary of the dire situation that millions of people are facing. "The most vulnerable people are reliant on the goodwill of wealthier populations and humanitarian aid."

Dr Ahmed Mohamed Hassan, president of the Somali Red Crescent Society (SRCS), describes the situation in southern Somalia, where the numbers of malnourished children and mothers have been rising rapidly. "Around 20 per cent of Somalis are suffering from acute malnutrition, which is very worrying," he says. "It is vital that services be expanded throughout the country in order to save as many children under five and lactating women as possible from malnutrition."

Hilary managed the activities for nutrition programs primarily in the provision of nutrition assistance to children under five. Through this, staff working with Hilary are able to establish and maintain clinics with acute malnutrition treatment services and to distribute food and water as well as provide sanitation facilities.

Based in the Kenyan capital of Nairobi, Hilary managed the programs in Somalia remotely, which provides an extra challenge in an already difficult crisis. Luckily, she has the pleasure of working closely with local staff that are able to travel to affected areas.

"The training of (SRCS) staff in community-based management of acute malnutrition is always enjoyable," says Hilary of one of the highlights of her work. "The fact that the SRCS clinics have admitted over 22,000 children across their programmes this year is also a highlight. We have managed to open 10 new outpatient therapeutic programs and 10 new mobile services in a very short period- six weeks, which I think the staff can be very proud of. Without these services children with severe acute malnutrition are at increased risk of dying."

Hilary had been based in the Kenyan capital of Nairobi mainly for security reasons. She says it has been a challenge to manage the feeding programs for children in Somalia from Kenya. Despite these challenges, Hilary says it is very important to be working with the local Red Crescent Society in Somalia as they are "able to implement health and nutrition activities in southern Somalia in a timely fashion. Their large network of volunteers allows them to work closely with communities and they should be strongly supported to continue on with their operations," Hilary adds enthusiastically.

"I find Red Cross to have the best mandate in the humanitarian sector and because of this, we have good access to the victims of armed conflict," says Hilary of the Red Cross Red Crescent response in Somalia, a country that was already weakened by two decades of armed conflict before the droughts started. "I also appreciate our ability to respond quickly in an emergency."

Photos: Hilary Floate working with people affected by the drought in Somalia (ICRC); Hamdi Abdirgant, 20, at a health clinic with her children who have had fevers for days (Olav A. Saltbones/Norwegian Red Cross); One year old, Shukri Jama, gets tested for malnutrition in a clinic in Somalia (Olav A. Saltbones/Norwegian Red Cross).