by Dario Thuburn
ROME, July 24, 2011 (AFP) - With the world scrambling to rescue 12 million people on the brink of starvation in the Horn of Africa, UN emergency official Cristina Amaral said the fact that children are dying of hunger is "immoral". As head of emergency operations in Africa for the UN's Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), Amaral has been warning about the crisis facing the drought-stricken region since November, after the rainy season failed.
Now she says it's not enough for donor countries to stump up some cash for immediate food aid -- there needs to be long-term investment to help farmers resist droughts and international mediation to bring peace to war-torn Somalia.
"When we have a declaration of famine in the 21st century, we should consider this immoral," Amaral told AFP in an interview as she prepared for emergency talks at FAO in Rome on Monday aimed at coordinating the aid effort.
Ministers, aid chiefs and charities are meeting to discuss ways of stepping up food supplies and delivering them to the epicentre of the famine in southern Somalia, much of which is under the control of Islamist militants.
"Without access to south Somalia, we're only seeing the tip of the iceberg -- those refugees arriving in Kenya and Ethiopia," Amaral said. "There are many more -- we estimate 3.7 million -- that need emergency assistance," she added.
The Al Qaeda-inspired Shebab group has banned humanitarian aid agencies like the World Food Programme from working in the region, although FAO has been able to operate several small programmes to help farmers through local partners.
"We hope that the political negotiation will evolve and that the humanitarian situation prevailing will make the clans in Somalia negotiate in a way that will free the access to people in need," she said.
Amaral said the international community is now seeing the results of years of under-investment in solutions to the chronic drought problems of the region.
Projects to improve the management of pastures by herders, to improve animal health and to introduce more resilient crops would go a long way, she said.
"We know what to do but the funding only works when you have the media attention and that's the problem," she said. "War has become a normality there. You only hear about Somalia when there are pirates," she added.
"We need to look at this protracted crisis with a different kind of solution. Somalia has had a lot of humanitarian aid but not much long-term investment," she said, blaming misperceptions that any efforts are hopeless.
"People don't get out of the drought cycle in one or two years. Usually it takes five or six years. In this case we had a drought in 2008 and we're having another one in 2011. People have not yet recovered from the first one."
She said FAO needs $135 million dollars (94 million euros) for its projects.
Amaral's work has taken her to some of the most deprived countries and worst humanitarian crises in the world, with some of her most recent efforts concentrated in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Haiti and Zimbabwe.
She said that, bad as the current crisis is, it still does not compare with previous humanitarian disasters in Ethiopia and Somalia in the 1980s and 1990s.
"Overall we have more capacity to respond today," she said.
But she added: "We're afraid that things will get worse in the coming months if nothing is done now." UN agencies say tens of thousands of people have died due to the drought and warn half a million children are at risk of dying.
One aggravating factor in the drought crisis has been the sharp spike in food and fuel prices in countries like Djibouti and Somalia that are net importers of food -- a point expected to be raised at the FAO talks on Monday.