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A cow is seen near a dry river outside Utrecht, a small town in the northwest of KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa, on Nov. 8, 2015.


Amid a cacophony of conflicting demands and desperate needs at next week's unprecedented World Humanitarian Summit, there are growing fears that the meeting will neglect the "silent disasters" in regions such as Africa's worsening drought zone.

Scores of world leaders will gather in Istanbul on Monday and Tuesday for the first-ever global humanitarian summit. The agenda will be crowded with competing crises: Middle East wars, climate disasters, massive refugee flows, donor fatigue and an increasing shortage of resources for the rapidly expanding needs.

The United Nations says the world is facing its worst humanitarian crisis since the Second World War, with some 125 million people needing aid and 60 million people forced from their homes by war, violence and disaster. "Human suffering from the impacts of armed conflicts and disasters has reached staggering levels," UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said as he announced the summit.

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Canada's International Development Minister, Marie-Claude Bibeau, along with other Canadian officials and aid groups, will be among the 6,000 delegates from 110 countries at the conference.

But there is already widespread skepticism about the summit. Its decisions will be vague and non-binding. Its agenda will be dominated by governments, rather than the leading humanitarian agencies. And one prominent group, Médecins sans frontières (Doctors Without Borders), has already given up on the meeting.

"The summit has become a fig leaf of good intentions," MSF said earlier this month in announcing its withdrawal from the summit.

"As shocking violations of international humanitarian law and refugee rights continue on a daily basis, summit participants will be pressed to a consensus on non-specific, good intentions," it said. "We no longer have any hope that the summit will address the weaknesses in humanitarian action and emergency response, particularly in conflict areas or epidemic situations."

The Istanbul conference is also likely to be dominated by concerns about the Syria conflict and the hundreds of thousands of asylum seekers who have arrived in Europe in the past two years. Africa, struggling with its own wars and disasters, could be lower on the agenda.

In southern Africa alone, an estimated 31.6 million people are short of food and needing assistance because of drought in recent months, and this number is expected to climb to around 49 million by the end of this year.

"We'll go to the World Humanitarian Summit to make sure that the so-called 'silent disasters' are not forgotten, that they are not overshadowed by the big crises that are happening somewhere else in the world because of their political profile," Elhadj As Sy, secretary-general of the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, said.

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"Syria needs to be supported, refugees need assistance – but people in southern Africa, far away from the limelight, deserve the same," he told a media briefing on Tuesday in Johannesburg.

The drought in southern Africa "deserves attention that it hasn't gotten yet," Mr. Sy said. "The headlines aren't about this crisis. Armed conflicts are often given more profile."

He called for an "equity approach" at the Istanbul summit.

The Red Cross federation and its partners, including UN agencies, are aiming to build a "one billion coalition" to help at least a billion vulnerable people around the world by 2025.

They say there is a "shocking" shortfall of at least $15-billion (U.S.) in global spending on humanitarian relief. Instead of waiting for emergencies to erupt, they want longer-term investment to focus on preparedness, early warning systems, early action and building resilience.

"Crises are getting more and more protracted," Mr. Sy said. "The number of people who are affected, against the coverage of people reached, is really reminding us that we're not getting anywhere near what is needed. If we wait until everybody is in dire need, it will be too late for too many."

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Shadrack Omol, a senior adviser to the UN children's fund Unicef on drought issues, said the global appeals for African drought assistance have obtained only 35 per cent of the needed funds six months after the appeals began. As a result, there is a severe risk of increasing malnutrition in the region, he said.

"The window for responding in a meaningful manner is rapidly closing," Mr. Omol told the briefing.

"The main concern is that slow-onset emergencies, like we're dealing with in southern Africa, sometimes don't attract enough attention, because they tend to creep up on us. The issue is not to have competition among different crises, but to ensure that all crises are given due attention."

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