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Press Briefing by Emergency Relief Coordinator, A.I.: Horn of Africa, Angola

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Faced with a drought equivalent to the one that ravaged the Horn of Africa 15 years ago, the Secretary-General had appointed Catherine Bertini, Executive Director of the World Food Programme (WFP), as his Special Envoy on the drought in the region, Carolyn McAskie, United Nations Emergency Relief Coordinator a.i., said at a Headquarters press briefing this afternoon.
She said Ms. Bertini would travel to the region following meetings with the Secretary-General next week in Rome. She would expect to leave on 10 April for Ethiopia, Djibouti, Kenya and Eritrea. One of the purposes of her mission would be to ascertain the magnitude of the crisis.

Ms. McAskie said the Horn was facing a serious food crisis caused primarily by drought and exacerbated by the cumulative effects of poor and unstable rainfall, conflict situations and large numbers of refugees and displaced persons. Those factors added tremendous strain on the management of basic food security issues in the affected countries.

She said that more than 15 million people in the Greater Horn of Africa were facing a serious humanitarian crisis, according to current WFP estimates.

Prolonged food aid relief would be needed over the next three to six months, she said, until it became clear what the next rains would be like and whether or not the next planting season would succeed. The requirement could be about 940,000 tonnes of relief food assistance for this year alone.

She said Ethiopia was the worst-hit country and would account for about 80 per cent of that requirement. Through its current relief operations, the WFP planned to provide some 371,000 tonnes of food assistance to 6.1 million drought-affected people in Ethiopia, Kenya, Somalia, Eritrea, Uganda, Djibouti and the Sudan. The initial cost would be $205 million.

Sporadic and uneven rains made the prospects for May and June highly uncertain, she said. "We are facing the real prospect two months from now of another catastrophe, which can be averted with the right kind of donor assistance." That was the reason why the Secretary-General was taking pre-emptive action by appointing Ms. Bertini as his Special Envoy to travel to the region.

She said Ms. Bertini would be accompanied by the press and by representatives of the appropriate agencies, probably the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) and the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF). A consolidated inter-agency appeal had been sent out for $190 million to cover food aid to Ethiopia in the year 2000. About half that requirement had been received. There had been no response to the $43 million appeal issued for Eritrea.

Ms. Bertini would be raising awareness of the deteriorating situation and the growing threat of famine, she said. She would also be working to obtain commitments from governments and other parties to conflict to provide secure access for humanitarian agencies.

Briefing correspondents on her own five-day visit to Angola, from 18 to 23 March, Ms. McAskie said the mission's main purpose was to get a broad overview of the challenge posed by the problems of displaced persons in that country, as well as to assess the operational capacity of the United Nations with a view to identifying gaps. The inter-agency mission also comprised senior officials of the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), UNICEF and the WFP.

She said the mission met with senior government officials, including key ministers, and travelled to the provinces of Bie, Huambo and Uige, as well as visiting camps for internally displaced people around the capital, Luanda.

While the worst of the war between government forces and rebels of the National Union for the Total Independence of Angola (UNITA) was past, she said, the war itself was far from over. It was estimated that UNITA would continue fighting a guerrilla war for a long time. Although the Government now had access to a number of provincial capitals and provinces where it had no previous presence, it was contemplating major actions against rebel-held territory, particularly in the eastern provinces.

She said that the problems of displaced persons in Angola were compounded by the fact that the whole population had been badly affected by the war. Services had broken down, they were unable to provide for their own food security and they did not even have shelter after being thrown out of their homes. Such people disappeared into the towns and people's homes. Those who did not ended up in government-run camps.

Ms. McAskie said that the mission had found the Government's organization in terms of looking after displaced people to be seriously inadequate. She would be recommending to the Secretary-General that the United Nations step up its humanitarian effort in Angola. The UNHCR had had a very small presence in the country, but was considering increasing it as a result of the mission. The UNICEF, with a reasonably strong presence, would be strengthening it, while the WFP would continue to be the backbone of the Organization's presence there.

Key issues in Angola included the protection of internally displaced persons, she said. Security and access posed a particular challenge. The population was still subject to random guerrilla attacks on settlements and convoys, as well as the planting of landmines. Until now, the United Nations had only been able to operate in government-held areas. While those areas represented 10 to 15 per cent of the territory of Angola, they contained 60 to 70 per cent of the population that had fled into government-held areas. The Organization had been unable to assess the fate of those in UNITA-held territory.

Asked about the situation of children in Angola, she said they were an enormous priority. A whole generation would grow up without education, because the system had been disrupted by more than 30 years of war. The disruption of food production had resulted in severe malnutrition. As much as 70 per cent of displaced persons were women and children.

Another journalist asked what efforts were being made to secure access to displaced persons in UNITA-held areas. Ms. McAskie replied that had proven to be one of the more difficult questions for the United Nations. The Organization was operating in the rebel-held eastern part of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and had launched a humanitarian dialogue with the rebels in Burundi. But all recent attempts to approach UNITA had failed.

Responding to a question about the effect of sanctions imposed on UNITA, she said that officials welcomed the recent publication of the report on sanctions. They felt that UNITA's shift from outright war to guerrilla-type activities was a direct result of arms and other sanctions.

What obstacles slowed down United Nations efforts to gain access to displaced persons in government-held areas? another correspondent asked.

She said that where the government controlled a town surrounded by a rebel-held province, the only access was by air. The airport was often closed for days at a time, interrupting food supplies. Another constraint was the government's tendency to move people without notice.