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Durban disaster, Middle East bread shortages, and Somalia’s all-woman media team: The Cheat Sheet

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Our editors’ weekly take on humanitarian news, trends, and developments from around the globe.

On our radar

Hundreds dead in South Africa floods

Almost 400 people have died in flooding in South Africa’s eastern coastal city of Durban. With roads and bridges washed away, rescuers have battled to deliver supplies, and some residents have gone without power or water since 11 April. Parts of KwaZulu-Natal province recorded almost their average annual rainfall in just 48 hours – a deluge that took the weather forecasters by surprise. Informal settlements have been particularly badly hit. But neither has the flooding spared shopping malls and businesses that had only recently recovered from politically inspired looting. Toppled containers also forced the closure of the country’s largest port for 36 hours – a key trade route for landlocked neighbours including Botswana, Zimbabwe, and Zambia. President Cyril Ramaphosa was visibly shocked when he toured the area on 13 April. He blamed climate change for the devastation; yet more dangerous storms are forecast for this weekend. Durban has a progressive climate action plan, but years of underspending on basics like the maintenance of city infrastructure and stormwater systems have undermined those ambitions.

Looking for wheat, from Lebanon to Egypt

Facing long lines and bread shortages, Lebanon has been forced to give private importers $15 million to bring more wheat into the country. It’s just a short-term fix (Lebanon is broke and waiting for the IMF to approve a bailout deal), but countries across the Middle East may be looking for similar solutions as they struggle with the fallout from the Russian invasion of Ukraine (both are key wheat producers). Oxfam is warning that wheat reserves could run out within weeks in the Occupied Palestinian Territories; Mercy Corps reports that food prices are up in rebel-held northwest Syria, where food security is already a major concern; and at the end of last month Egypt put a cap on unsubsidised bread prices before they could get too high. Yemen, which imports the vast majority of its food, is of particular concern as it already has so many hungry people and is heavily dependent on Ukrainian wheat. As is often the case, if things get worse, children may be first to suffer. Just last week, UNICEF said that “the number of malnourished children [in the region] is likely to drastically increase.”

EU ends Mali training as junta turns to Russian mercenaries

The EU is halting its military training mission in Mali, citing the presence of Russian Wagner Group mercenaries who have committed a slew of abuses in recent weeks alongside the Malian armed forces. The training mission, known as EUTM Mali, deployed in 2013 to help restore state authority after northern towns had been captured by jihadist groups and separatist rebels. Thousands of Malian troops benefited from courses, though the soldiers were not vetted for involvement in civilian abuses before their training or monitored for violations after. The EU was therefore accused of supporting an army that has killed more civilians than jihadists in some years. The EUTM suspension comes two months after France announced the withdrawal of its counter-jihadist forces in Mali following its feud with the country’s ruling junta. Humanitarian needs are deepening amid the diplomatic and security shifts, while rights abuses have exploded since Wagner Group’s arrival. See our recent briefing for more.

A lengthy drought strains Iran

Disappearing wetlands, water shortages, emptying villages – it’s becoming “impossible to ignore” the impacts of a decades-worst drought in Iran, according to a new assessment from the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies. The report warns that an extended regional drought has depleted water sources and driven migration to urban areas as livelihoods dry up. In recent years, Iran has been roiled by lengthy protests that were triggered at first by economic hardships; water shortages have added to the many grievances. “Food insecurity and a breakdown in societal cohesion are highly likely to follow if increased strains on households and communities are not addressed,” the IFRC assessment warns. The federation has launched an appeal, pegged at about $9.5 million, to help the Iran Red Crescent Society respond, but sanctions on Iran continue to be a barrier to aid. The climate change-fused drought doesn’t stop at Iran’s borders: it’s part of region-wide extremes that have also hit countries like Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria.

Can unified military command help South Sudan?

President Salva Kiir has moved to unify the command of South Sudan’s military, ordering the integration of army officers loyal to Vice President Riek Machar. The move – a long-awaited implementation of the 2018 peace deal between the two leaders – follows rising tension and fighting between their forces. Late last month, Machar warned the country was heading “back to war” following attacks by government troops on his opposition SPLM/A-IO group. The 2018 deal created a power-sharing government in the hope of achieving peace, though some analysts credit the agreement with instigating more violence. The country is now facing its worst food crisis on record – a consequence of conflict, economic decline, and record flooding. Meanwhile, more violence was reported this week in northern Unity State, with clashes between armed youths and the SPLM/A-IO leading to village burnings and dozens of deaths.

A mental health success story in Sierra Leone

For centuries, Sierra Leone’s Kissy asylum was known for restraining patients with chains. Now, it has been transformed into a teaching hospital – one of many strides the country is making to transform its mental healthcare system after emerging from a brutal civil war in 2001 – not to mention grappling with lingering trauma from an Ebola epidemic that killed 11,300 people in West Africa between 2014 and 2016. The Boston-based humanitarian organisation Partners in Health teamed up with the Sierra Leonean health ministry to rehabilitate the hospital. Dr. Paul Farmer, who died recently and was a co-founder of Partners in Health, held up the hospital’s success as an example of what could be done for mental health across the Global South. Other countries such as Rwanda and Ethiopia have been making similar strides to prioritise mental health to heal from the traumas of war, and recent strains surrounding the COVID-19 pandemic. Despite progress, however, the World Health Organization says mental health continues to be neglected, estimating that about one in five of those who lived in conflict-affected areas developed depression, anxiety, bipolar, schizophrenia, or post-traumatic stress disorder. For more on the uphill battle to reform mental health in Sierra Leone, read our 2019 feature.

In case you missed it

CUBA-US: US farmers say lifting Cold War-era restrictions could help ease food shortages in Cuba. The Caribbean country has been grappling with a food crisis for years, but shortages have grown worse due to rising prices linked to the war in Ukraine. Although the US provides Cuba with much of its food, it refuses to offer the cash-strapped country credit, forcing it to pay for shipments up front.

GBV FUNDING: New data shows that although funding for women and girls in humanitarian crises has increased, this has been eclipsed by growing needs in the wake of the pandemic. Only a quarter of the money needed to tackle gender-based violence was provided last year, according to Development Initiatives. Some 87 percent of funding in 2021 came from just 10 donors, with just 3.1 percent going toward local organisations, down from 4.8 percent in 2018. 

MEXICO: A UN report condemned the “almost total impunity” in Mexico that has allowed an epidemic of enforced disappearances – totalling nearly 100,000 people – to thrive. It said that organised criminal groups and corrupt officials were responsible for the disappearances, including of a rising number of children and women. Only 36 cases resulted in a conviction.

OECD: Is the value of aid rising with global needs? It depends how you count it. New figures show foreign aid from OECD countries at “an all-time high” of $179 billion in 2021. But if you strip out the value of COVID-19 vaccines (about 3.5 percent of this), then total development aid is up only 0.6 percent over the previous year. More than a third of the value of COVID-19 vaccines counted toward aid consisted of leftover doses (often donated close to expiry).

PALESTINE/ISRAEL: Israeli police raided the Al-Aqsa Mosque compound in occupied East Jerusalem on 15 April. At least 150 Palestinians were injured and hundreds detained in an operation witnesses described as senselessly brutal but which police said was needed to break up a violent crowd. It follows weeks of escalating tensions: Israeli forces killed at least five Palestinians in the West Bank on 13-14 April, including a 14-year-old boy as they increased raids after several deadly attacks by Palestinians inside Israel, including a shooting at a Tel Aviv bar that killed three people last week.

THE PHILIPPINES: At least 137 people are dead after Tropical Storm Megi hit parts of the Philippines. Known locally as Agaton, the storm slowed to a near standstill after making landfall, amplifying damages. Megi struck parts of the country still recovering from December’s Typhoon Rai, one of the country’s most damaging on record.

SRI LANKA: Medicine shortages continue in Sri Lanka as an economic crisis spirals, medical associations warn. The government has reportedly asked several aid agencies for medical supplies. Protesters continue to call for the ouster of the Rajapaksa government, which has been handcuffed by massive debt. The government says it will temporarily suspend payments on its foreign debt.

UK: Tens of thousands of asylum seekers could be sent to Rwanda as part of a new effort announced by UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson on 14 April to prevent people from crossing the English Channel. Human rights groups immediately denounced the policy as “shamefully cruel”. Channel crossings have increased over the past two years, and the UK has responded by initiating an overhaul of its asylum system to prevent those who make the journey from receiving protection.

UKRAINE: While still smaller than the number of those fleeing, between 25,000 and 30,000 Ukrainians are returning to the country every day, according to Ukraine’s state border guard service. Overall, more than 870,000 Ukrainians have entered the country since Russia invaded on 24 February. Early on, the majority were men coming back to fight. But as Russia has withdrawn from areas around the capital, Kyiv, and focused its military efforts on the east of the country, the number of women, children, and elderly returning has also increased.

YEMEN: The US Navy announced on 13 April that it is setting up a new “international task force” to patrol the waters around Yemen. Vice Admiral Brad Cooper said the ships would seek to target smuggling in the area. Cooper did not name the Houthi rebels fighting in Yemen, but the announcement comes after an increase in cross-border attacks by the group on both Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. 

Weekend read

Alarm bells but little action as Horn of Africa faces unprecedented drought

Alarm bells are being rung with vigour over a food crisis threatening the Horn of Africa. The latest warning, a joint statement by four UN agencies, says millions of Somalis are at risk of famine as a result of drought, skyrocketing food prices, and a huge funding shortfall. The crisis extends to parts of Ethiopia and Kenya. Across the region, people’s ability to cope has been shredded by three consecutive seasons of poor rains. Experts are now warning a fourth drought is underway, which will tip millions more into catastrophe. In this report, Obi Anyadike talks to people in southern Somalia who’ve fled their rural homes, arriving in makeshift displacement camps looking for help. Rather than the international community, it’s local people coming to their assistance. That’s because the donor response to this crisis has been woeful. With competing emergencies – from Afghanistan to Ukraine – Western governments are tapped out. But the lesson, repeatedly relearnt, is that a delayed response now costs so many more lives later.

And finally…

Somalia’s all-woman media house has a story to tell

It's bad enough just being a journalist in Somalia – it’s one of the most dangerous places in the world to work. But for women reporters, it’s harder still. It’s not just the jihadist group al-Shabab that holds deeply patriarchal views on women. There are career-scarring prejudices wielded by men in newsrooms to deal with as well, along with non-stop sexual harassment. That’s why a new all-woman media team is so groundbreaking. Called Bilan, it provides an opportunity for female journalists to publish the stories they want to tell in a mix of hard news and features. The six-women team, all established media professionals, is supported by UNDP and hosted by Dalsan, one of the country’s biggest media networks. “As a women-only media house, we are going to be able to bring taboo subjects into the open,” said Fathi Mohamed Ahmed, deputy editor. “Our sisters, mothers and grandmothers will talk to us about issues they never dare speak about with men.” The New Humanitarian is taking a keen interest.

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