Thursday, July 21, 2011

"Somalia is facing its worst food security crisis in the last 20 years"

Climate change, greed, war and political indifference (make that cowardice) are an incredibly deadly combination. (GW)

Somalia Famine Threatens to Spread

By Joe Lauria
Wall Street Journal
JULY 21, 2011

United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon delivered an urgent appeal to donors Wednesday for $300 million within two months to stop the world's worst famine, afflicting millions in Somalia, from spreading farther into the country's south.

"We need donor support to address current needs and prevent a further deterioration of the crisis," Mr. Ban told reporters in New York. "If funding is not made available for humanitarian interventions now, the famine is likely to continue and spread."

The U.N. said it has so far raised only half of the $1.6 billion needed for its regional relief efforts in eastern Africa.

Mark Bowden, the U.N.'s humanitarian coordinator for Somalia, also officially announced that the country was experiencing a famine.

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Two-year-old, Aden Salaad looked up toward his mother as she bathed him in a tub at a Doctors Without Borders hospital in Dagahaley Camp, outside Dadaab, Kenya, on July 11.

Famine is declared when acute child malnutrition exceeds 30% of the population and more than two people of every 10,000 die each day from hunger.

The malnutrition rates in Somalia are the highest in the world, reaching 50% in some areas, Mr. Bowden said.

Tens of thousands of people, mostly children, have already died and 3.7 million people, nearly half of the Somali population, are affected, Mr. Bowden said.

The drought could spread to all eight regions of southern Somalia within eight weeks, Mr. Bowden said.

Consecutive droughts over the past few years and the continuing conflict against the al-Shabaab Islamic militant group have caused the famine. The U.N.'s aid effort has been complicated by insurgents' refusal to allow assistance to enter southern areas that are under their control.

"Relentless terrorism by al-Shabaab against its own people has turned an already severe situation into a dire one," Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said in a statement released from Washington.

The U.S. said Wednesday it would donate $28 million. The U.S. has already provided about $431 million in emergency assistance to the eastern Horn of Africa this year, but Mrs. Clinton said it "is not enough."

The relatively well-paid insurgents have been able to buy food in the south, where prices of staple foods have skyrocketed, Mr. Bowden said.

However, U.N. officials are hopeful that the militants will honor a pledge made last week to lift their ban on U.N. aid.

Over the weekend, the U.N. made its first airlifts of food aid to insurgent-held areas.

The entire Horn of Africa region is experiencing one of the worst droughts in 50 years, affecting 11 million people in Kenya, Ethiopia, Djibouti and Somalia.

Exhausted, rail-thin women are stumbling into refugee camps in Kenya and Ethiopia with dead babies and bleeding feet, having left weaker family members behind along the way.

"Somalia is facing its worst food security crisis in the last 20 years," said Mark Bowden, the U.N.'s top official in charge of humanitarian aid in Somalia. "This desperate situation requires urgent action to save lives....It's likely that conditions will deteriorate further in six months."

The crisis is the worst since 1991-92, when hundreds of thousands of Somalis starved to death, Mr. Bowden said. That famine prompted intervention by an international peacekeeping force that eventually pulled out after two American Black Hawk helicopters were shot down in 1993.

The United Nations declares famine in parts of southern Somalia, signalling to donors the need for more aid and to insurgents that the population's suffering is taken seriously. Video courtesy of Reuters.

Since then, Western nations have mainly sought to contain the threat of terrorism from Somalia—an anarchic nation where the weak government battles Islamic militants on land and pirates hijack ships at sea.

Aid group Oxfam said $1 billion is needed for famine relief. On Wednesday, the U.S. announced an additional $28 million in emergency funding atop $431 million in assistance already given this year.

Most importantly, those new U.S. funds won't be placed under restrictions implemented in 2009 to keep food and money from being stolen by Islamic militants.

Aid groups have called for the restrictions to be lifted entirely and said the rules have severely limited their operations. U.S. humanitarian contributions in Somalia fell from $237 million in 2008 to $29 million last year.

"We've seen a very large shortfall over the past few years given the political restrictions attached to humanitarian funding," said Tanja Schumer of the Somalia NGO Consortium, which represents 78 aid agencies working on Somalia. "To get American money, we have to vouch for all our contractors and all our local partners, and that is tricky."

Oxfam said there is a $800 million shortfall in funds needed through January.

Britain has pledged $145 million in the past two weeks, and the European Union pledged around $8 million, with more expected in coming days. Spain has promised about $10 million and Germany around $8.5 million, but Oxfam said France hasn't pledged additional money and Denmark and Italy have said no significant new sums are available.

Somalia is the most dangerous country in the world to work in, according to the U.N.'s World Food Program, which has lost 14 relief workers in the past few years. Kidnappings, killings and attacks on aid convoys occur frequently. Two years ago, the program pulled out of Islamist-controlled southern Somalia after rebels demanded cash payments and other concessions.

U.S. military operations against terrorism suspects also have disrupted humanitarian operations, Mr. Bowden said. Insurgents vowed to target foreign aid workers after a U.S. missile strike killed the head of the Islamist al-Shabab militia and 24 other people in 2008. Aden Hashi Ayro was reputedly al Qaeda's commander in Somalia and linked to a string of attacks on foreign aid workers and journalists.

Most of Somalia has been wracked by civil war since its government collapsed in 1990, and the weak, U.N.-backed Somali government regularly comes last in the world in the annual corruption rating by watchdog Transparency International. Islamist rebels currently hold most of southern Somalia.

But World Food Program head Josette Sheeran said the agency is willing to return to southern Somalia if insurgents guarantee safe passage and free access to aid. Two regions of Somalia—Bakool and Lower Shabelle—are suffering from famine and eight more are at risk.

"We are absolutely fully committed to going where the hungry are," she said.

The Horn of Africa is suffering a devastating drought compounded by war, neglect, poor land policies and spiraling prices. Some areas in the region haven't had such a low rainfall in 60 years, Oxfam said. Kenya, Ethiopia and Djibouti have all been badly affected, and Eritrea is also believed to be suffering, although its government does not release figures.

Yet only Somalia is technically suffering from famine, defined as when two adults or four children per 10,000 people die of hunger each day and a third of children are acutely malnourished.

In some areas of Somalia, six people are dying a day and more than half of children are acutely malnourished, Mr. Bowden said. Prices of staple foods have increased 270 percent over the last year, compounding the misery.

Somalia's civil war is partly to blame, said Joakim Gundel, who heads Katuni Consult, a Nairobi-based company often asked to evaluate international aid efforts in Somalia.

He said aid groups found fund-raising easier if they blamed natural disaster rather than saiding the emergency was partly caused by a 20-year civil war worsened by international apathy.

"There is no clear-cut answer," he said. "People are suffering and there is a need to respond. But drought is not the only cause. Conflict is a key reason and it is not being addressed properly."

Write to Joe Lauria at newseditor@wsj.com

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