Global food crisis adding to shortages

Drought, high food prices and a weak response from donors have left a large proportion of Djibouti’s population without enough to eat, despite some level of economic growth, the UN Resident Coordinator said.

"Djibouti has been suffering over the last few years, not only from the drought situation that the Horn of Africa is facing, but it is also one of the countries severely hit by the global food crisis," Sunil Saigal said.

Of a population of between 500,000 and 700,000, an estimated 130,000 were highly food-insecure. This, however, is a significant drop from the 340,000 cited by the Famine Early Warning Systems Network (FEWS Net) in September 2006.

"We don’t quite know how many people are actually in Djibouti right now," Saigal told IRIN in Djibouti. "[But] a very large percentage is highly food-insecure. WFP [UN World Food Programme] is operating on the basis of 328,000 moderately food-insecure."

The rural population was more affected because food prices had increased by more than in urban areas. Over five years, prices had increased in urban areas by 80 percent compared with 94 percent in rural areas.

"Between January 2007 and September 2008, the increase of the basic food basket in urban areas was 62.4 percent and in rural areas 74 percent," he added. "So really the whole population has been severely hit."

The situation had been aggravated by a lack of adequate donor attention, despite a good response from USAID, the European Union and the UN's Central Emergency Response Fund, among others.

"But overall, the response from the international community has been weak," the Resident Coordinator explained. "We issued jointly with the government last July an appeal for the last six months of 2008 for US$31.7 million ... we have a shortfall of about $20 million."

Among other impacts, the drought and food crisis had increased malnutrition, despite government efforts to improve access to basic services.

"We are looking at global malnutrition rates of 16 and 17 percent and in the northwest of the country as high as 25 percent," Saigal said.

"WHO [the World Health Organization] considers the threshold for a crisis to be 15 percent. We are well beyond the crisis situation and that is what we are trying to respond to."

Djibouti, a semi-desert state that experiences frequent droughts and imports all its staple foods, is classified by the UN as both a least developed and a low-income, food-deficit country.

Years of minimal rains have left both rural and urban populations more dependent on food imports due to poor pastoral and agro-pastoral production while international commodity prices have risen steadily.