By Josette Sheeran
The opinions expressed are her own.
I will never forget holding my newborn baby in my arms watching a television report on the 1987 famine in Ethiopia – hearing the haunting cries of babies whose hunger could not be met by their anguished mothers. Tragically, today we are seeing the same images as the worst drought in 60 years again devastates the Horn of Africa, throwing as many as 12 million into desperate hunger.
But there are hopeful signs that today’s drought need not result in the tens of thousands of deaths that we saw in earlier decades. Other than the tragic situation in South Somalia, where those in control have blocked humanitarian assistance, the drought’s impact has been blunted by advance preparation and resiliency programs. WFP, with the support of many, has been scaling up for more than six months.
Through a community adaptation program called MERET, WFP has been supporting the Ethiopian government in sustainable land management and rain catchment which has vastly increased food production and mitigated the impact of the drought. In the dry Karamoja region of northern Uganda, local communities are showing more resilience than in the 2007-2009 droughts, thanks to a new system of communal food stocks that are replenished at harvest time.
We also know more today about how proper nutrition saves lives. Maternal and child undernutrition is the underlying cause of 3.5 million deaths in children under five each year, on average, one every ten seconds. The 2008 landmark Lancet series outlined that inadequate nutrition during the first 1000 days – from conception to two years old – leads to irreversible impairments in physical and cognitive development, permanently damaging the brains and bodies of a generation.
Nutrition must begin in the womb. That is why the world has correctly emphasized the first 1000 days as the way to break the intergenerational cycle of malnutrition. As Nicholas Kristof noted in a recent column, 1.4 million child deaths could be averted each year if babies were breast-fed properly. WFP encourages exclusive breast feeding for a minimum of six months and actively supports the work of WHO and UNICEF in this critical area. After complementary feeding starts, WFP provides young children and nursing mothers with supplemental nutritional foods.