Floods increase risk of malnutrition, diseases

Floods in Somalia have destroyed meagre food stocks for communities that were struggling to recover from the effects of a severe drought earlier in the year, putting children at a higher risk of malnutrition, according to the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF).

"In many areas, community food supplies traditionally stored underground have been completely lost," Bob McCarthy, Emergency Officer, UNICEF Somalia Support Centre in Nairobi, told IRIN on Thursday. "Now, almost four weeks on, people are feeling hunger and the nutritional status of children, many of whom are already malnourished, is rapidly deteriorating," he said.

Displaced people staying in makeshift shelters continue to require tarpaulins, blankets, soap and jerry cans, but the risk of a significant disease outbreak remains high. Stagnant water has become a breeding ground for mosquitoes, seriously increasing the risk of malaria.

The possibility of a major cholera outbreak, McCarthy said, is high because poor quality drinking water and flooded latrines in most areas had created conditions likely to boost cases of diarrhoea.

An estimated 400,000 people have been directly affected by rivers that breached their banks and flash floods that followed heavy rainfall. Hundreds of towns and villages have been hit, homes destroyed or seriously damaged and roads cut off.

Flooding began on the weekend of 10-11 November, triggering the immediate displacement of more than 60,000 people in Belet Weyne, in the south-central Hiran region. Those displaced moved to higher ground on the east bank. River levels have since fallen in some areas, but people are still unable to return to their homes.

The worst affected areas are in Middle and Lower Juba regions, specifically Jilib and Jamaame districts, where river levels continue to rise due to surges in Juba and Shabelle rivers. The two rivers have joined for the first time since the devastating floods of 1997. A huge amount of water has been flowing into the Lower Juba valley from the Bilesha plains in Kenya's Northeast Province.

A recent inter-agency assessment mission led by the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) between the districts of Jilib and Jamaame found more than 100,000 people in severe flood emergency conditions.

Slightly less affected are Middle and Lower Shabelle regions though conditions remain precarious. The situation could worsen as continued heavy rainfall in southeastern Ethiopia and southern Somalia is forecast.

A lull in rainfall in the last 10 days of November meant improvements in road transport and UNICEF and other agencies were able to get some relief supplies into Hiran and Lower Juba regions by road, up from Mogadishu and Kismayo in the south as well as from Hargeisa and Bosasso in the north. WFP and CARE have also geared up food deliveries.

McCarthy said the response to this flood crisis differed from other emergencies in southern Somalia in the past decade because of the significantly improved security environment for the relief operations as well as good cooperation at the local level with the Somali authorities. "But the bottom line is, if we can avoid major disease outbreaks and see no further large-scale flooding over the next two weeks we may then talk about improvement," he said.

Cholera treatment kits, including oral re-hydration salts and IV solutions were being taken to flood-hit areas.

"The continuing reliance on river water increases the health risks, thus the need for massive distribution of water-treatment tablets," said McCarthy, adding that floods had also resulted in the suspension of education opportunities in most of the affected towns and villages, hence the need to consider ways to provide emergency education.

UNICEF alone estimates that it has provided assistance to more than 250,000 people since early October through the provision of health supplies, shelter materials, water receptacles and water-treatment facilities. A major airlift operation has been set up by the UN World Food Programme on behalf of the inter-agency response.

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