It’s Christmas tomorrow. Cue M. bursting into our bedroom at 7am (not unusual for a Saturday) to announce excitedly that Santa Claus would be visiting tonight. Santa & Mrs. Claus were less enthusiastic about the early morning announcement, but we get it. We were six once too. In the meantime, there’s fairy lights on the Christmas tree and draped all up the staircase, a small but growing pile of wrapped gifts on the living room floor, and the girls are planning on making a gingerbread house this afternoon.
Except for the tinsel and a reduced staff load, however, you wouldn’t know it’s Christmas at work. Humanitarian life goes on. If anything, this week’s been a doozy. I got back Monday night from a brief visit to Dili, Timor Leste, to do some planning ahead of next year’s elections, and my week hasn’t really stopped since.
In the West African countries of Chad, Niger, Mali, Mauritania and Burkina Faso, there’s a growing food crisis. Really it’s just an extension of the chronic food insecurity and malnutrition that exists across much of the region. Fragile economies, unreliable rainfall, deteriorating soils, climate change, population pressure, feeding practices, access to clean water and health care- in brief, a whole host of reasons- all make rural populations highly vulnerable to any shocks in their livelihood production systems. While the indicators for the coming season across the region as a whole are not all bad, and while there isn’t the threat of widespread emergency or famine as in the Horn of Africa this year, but regardless millions of people (around 6 millions of them) in pockets in all five of those countries are going to struggle to feed themselves. The hunger season- traditionally beginning any time between February (in a bad year) and May and running until the harvest in September, has already begun in places, with some households out of food already, and some child deaths reported. Niger is still recovering from a difficult year in 2010, and 2012 is likely to see elevated rates of malnutrition and, realistically, the likelihood of significant numbers of child deaths if relief efforts are not stepped up.
The food security outlook for Sudan has been released this week by the USAID-sponsored Famine Early Warning System- the gospel when it comes to classifying global food shortages. It rates areas on a five-point scale (IPC- the Integrated Food Security Phase Classification)- No Food Insecurity, Stressed, Crisis, Emergency and Catastrophe. Large areas of western Sudan (Darfur) are forecast to be in Crisis (IPC level 3), while several areas- significantly those in ongoing conflict, particularly South Kordofan and Blue Nile- are anticipated to be at Emergency levels- levels similar to those seen across most of northern Kenya, Puntland and southern Somalia earlier this year.
And while on the subject of Sudan and conflict, tensions between Sudan and South Sudan (which earlier this year separated from Khartoum-led Sudan following a popular referendum) continue to escalate. Aerial bombardments of populations in disputed areas continue. Troop build-ups are reported. Pro-north militias in the south are allegedly forcibly recruiting southern Sudanese refugees in Khartoum and making them fight against the south. MSF reports large-scale displacements. While the food security outlook for South Sudan is less alarming than for Sudan, the combination of unpredictable population movement and the increasing indicators that large-scale conflict is likely are major concerns over the coming months.
If there’s good news to be found in sub-Saharan Africa right now, it is in the Horn of Africa, where rains have started to bring about an improvement in the drought and famine over the past couple of months. Grazing pasture is reported to be returning, which will support pastoralists, while wells are replenishing and food will soon be able to be grown in some areas. The UN has declassified some areas of Somalia from Famine (Catastrophe) to Emergency, and humanitarian support has been credited with having had a significant impact in this area. That said, huge portions of the Horn of Africa remain in very serious food crisis, and some populations still remain at Catastrophe (IPC Level 5) levels, particularly areas around Mogadishu and with high IDP populations. In addition, while the rains have improved some conditions, they have worsened others, making runways unusable by relief flights, bogging down overland trips which now take three days in place of one, and, most serious of all, spreading Acute Watery Diarrhoea (AWD) which has been credited with hundreds of deaths in recent weeks among Somali IDPs. We won’t talk about the security situation, which continues to simmer at the very most unstable end of the spectrum, with troops from Kenya and Ethiopia engaged in de facto unilateral action against al Shabab militants, who in turn appear to be strengthening ties with global terror networks like al Qaeda, and continue to destabilize the Transitional Federal Government (TFG) and the Africa Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM). 3 Somali aid workers were killed in Somalia yesterday, motive as yet unreported.
Leaving the African continent, more than forty thousand people have been impacted by heavy rains in northern Sri Lanka this week. The districts of Kilinochchi, Mulaitivu and Jaffna have all been hit by moderate flooding, with the government calling on local NGOs to respond. The past eighteen months have seen northern Sri Lanka slowly being rebuilt in the wake of a thirty-year civil war that saw twenty thousand reportedly die in the early months of 2009 alone, and as such is an immensely fragile area. More heavy rain is forecast.
Heavy rain this week in the Philippines also triggered tragedy in Mindinao, in the southern Philippines, when flash floods tore through several areas during the night. A thousand dead have been recovered, and the government reports another thousand remain unaccounted for. The Philippines sees death and destruction on an annual basis at the hands of powerful storm systems, like Typhoon Ketsana in 2009 that caused extensive damage in Manila. This however remains one of the deadliest events in recent years.
Even closer to home, a storm system is building off the north coast of Australia and is due to make landfall on Boxing Day some hundred kilometres east of Darwin as a Category Two tropical cyclone, with the potential for damage. And yesterday, two large, shallow aftershocks struck Christchurch- where nearly 200 people lost their lives earlier this year and large portions of the city were destroyed- triggering fear and distressing memories for many folks living there.
Papua New Guinea’s government remains in a state of considerable uncertainty as two senior politicians- Sir Michael Somare and Peter O’Neill- face off over disputed leadership, with the threat of unrest and violence a major concern. President Laurent Kabila’s victory in the Democratic Republic of the Congo’s polls has been confirmed by the courts, but criticized by international observers and denounced by political rivals. Police action in that country has lead to the deaths of over two dozen people in recent days, and the country remains under scrutiny to see whether further political violence will spiral out. Iraq has experienced a massive series of coordinated terror attacks in the wake of the US pullout of troops, with its government split along sectarian lines as Vice President al-Hashemi is accused of ties with terrorism and a looming threat of spiralling civil violence. Syria’s internal conflict has stepped up a notch, with a powerful and sophisticated car bomb targeting security forces and civilians in Damascus killing 44 people and injuring scores more. Drug-related violence continues in Mexico at a rate rivalling that of many civil wars, while concerns over insecurity in Afghanistan in the face of a US troop drawdown there in 2012 are increasing, given ongoing levels of insurgency across the country and a fragile, divided state government. A recent leak claims that Pakistan’s government fears a coup by the military is on the cards.
You could say things are busy right now.
I don’t write this to be a downer, or guilt you out, or anything else. Christmas is a time for celebration, for remembering those people and values in your life that are important, for those of us with faith to celebrate what we believe to be a pivotal gift to human kind, and to be close to the ones you love. For me, however, the values of being a humanitarian- remembering those people who are in need in a wide range of ways- is central to reflecting on this season which can be so materialistic, shallow and self-focused. It’s an opportunity for me to take a look around, take a breath, get some perspective, and reflect on what I can do to make the world around me a better place- starting with my family and working outwards from there.
Friend, fellow humanitarian & social media-ite @richendag, who works for INGO World Vision, posted this letter that the Grade 2 daughter of one of their supporters wrote in class for Santa Claus a couple of weeks ago.
If that’s a little unclear, it reads:
This year I have tried hard in school, helped mum clean the house tidy, and made new friends. All I really would like is the Kenya people to have a home and something to eat and drink please. Right now they are probably eating dirt. Thank you. Love from Lauren.
Nuff said really. She gets it. You go, Lauren.
Tonight, M. asked if Santa Claus was going to be visiting all the kids in the world, even the ones in places I go and visit when I travel for work. We had to tell her that no, Santa doesn’t visit all the kids in the world, that there are some kids who miss out at Christmas. At bed time, she reflected sadly that it wasn’t right that Santa didn’t visit some of the sick kids. With luck, she’s on her way to getting it too.
Merry Christmas all of you, and rich blessings to friends, family and loved ones for 2012.