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'Living on water and sugar': East Africa's tiny children starving to death

As the Disasters Emergency Committee launches an urgent appeal for help for those facing starvation in East Africa, our Africa Correspondent John Ray reflects on three weeks reporting in two of the worst affected countries, as part of ITV News' Fighting Famine coverage.

I’m left with two indelible memories from the past few weeks travelling through Somalia and South Sudan.

They’re both of little boys of roughly the same age.

At a Unicef-funded clinic in Juba I met Khamis, a child so fragile he was too weak to stand.

Mohammad weighs less than half what he should Credit: ITV News

His mother told me how she’d eaten grass to stay alive.

We then travelled with Unicef to Dollow, a dusty town in Somalia. There were chaotic scenes as anxious mothers and hungry babies waited for food handouts at a small hospital.

Fatuma Mohamed, of the Irish aid group Trocaire, told me they’d had to increase the sessions from once a week to every day, such, suddenly, is the demand.

But lying quietly in a ward close by was Mohammad - two-years-old and weighing four kilograms - less than half what a healthy boy of his age should weigh.

Khamis was too weak to stand Credit: ITV News

His mother Habiba told me she prays for her first born.

That he had survived this far seems something like a miracle.

This is what Habiba told me.

‘’Where I live, many people are starving. But most of my family have died from the cholera outbreak and I am the only one who lived.

‘’I have only been able to feed him on water and sugar. That’s all I could give him until now.’’

In Somalia, there is a drought more severe than that which led to the 2011 famine and killed a quarter of a million people.

In South Sudan, people are forced to walk for days to find food Credit: ITV News

But since then, the country has made progress. Broadly speaking, there’s less Al Shabab these days and more Government control.

Development funds have poured in. Infrastructure has been improved. So as one NGO worker told me:

"That’s all going to be tested now. After all the work, if Somalia falls over again, then questions will be asked. Have we been doing the right kind of development?"

In South Sudan, the unfolding tragedy is, as we have reported, man-made.

The government is using the last weeks of the dry, fighting season to push rebels out of their strong-holds in Unity state, the scene of so much conflict in a three year, ethnically-driven civil war for domination of this young country.

Food packages are distributed to the lucky few Credit: ITV News

While I was there, it felt like the authorities were reluctant, to put it mildly, to grant aid agencies the unfettered access they’d been promised.

A Save the Children warehouse of emergency supplies was attacked and emptied.

The government announced plans to charge NGOs $10,000 for permits for each of their workers coming into the country.

South Sudan, remember, is a country the UN has warned is on the path to genocide.

Children in South Sudan are starving to death Credit: ITV News

Perhaps someone thinks it's better there should be fewer foreign witnesses around.

This is a state failing despite billions of aid, expert help, and goodwill.

All this might make people in Britain sceptical about the way the aid industry works, especially now times are tough in the UK.

We are right to ask whether our money is being spent effectively, whether it’s going to the right people in the right places. Whether it make a difference in the long term.

But then I remember Khamis and Mohammad, and the doctors and nurses working at their bedsides.

Two little boys whose lives today depend upon the generosity of others.

There are millions like them.