U.N. declares famine in pockets of southern Somalia

NAIROBI, (Reuters) – The United Nations said yesterday two regions of southern Somalia had been hit by the  worst famine in the area for 20 years and that 3.7 million  people in the anarchic Horn of Africa nation risked starvation.

A woman holds her malnourished baby in a camp established by the Somali Transitional Federal Government (TFG) for the internally displaced people in Mogadishu yesterday. REUTERS/African Union-United Nations Information Support Team/Stuart Price/Handout

“If we don’t act now, famine will spread to all eight  regions of southern Somalia within two months, due to poor  harvests and infectious disease outbreaks,” Mark Bowden, the  humanitarian coordinator for Somalia, told a media briefing in  the Kenyan capital, Nairobi.

“Every day of delay in assistance is literally a matter of  life or death for children and their families in the  famine-affected areas.” Some 2.8 million Somalis live in the  south.

Years of drought, that have also affected Kenya and  Ethiopia, have hit harvests and conflict has made it extremely  difficult for agencies to operate and access communities in the  south of the country.

Much of southern and central Somalia is controlled by  Islamist militants linked to al Qaeda who imposed a ban on food  aid in 2010, which the U.N. and the United States said had  exacerbated the crisis. The rebels lifted the ban this month.

In the worst-affected areas, half the children are  malnourished. “It is likely that tens of thousands will already  have died, the majority of those being children,” Bowden said.

The U.N. declared famine in Somalia’s southern Bakool and  Lower Shabelle regions. The agency is poised to launch its  largest ever relief effort, Bowden said.

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton pledged an extra $28  million in aid but international charities have criticised the  slow response of many Western governments to funding an  estimated $800 million shortfall.

The U.N. was exploring ways of providing “cash relief” while  it finds ways of getting larger volumes of food aid into  southern Somalia, Bowden said. The global body has appealed for  $300 million over the next two months for Somalia.

Josette Sheeran, head of the U.N.’s World Food Programme  which had halted its aid operations after the rebel-imposed ban,  said this would be its “largest ever emergency operation of  supplementary foods to reach children”.

The agency appealed yesterday for an extra $500 million  on top of the $7.4 billion it originally sought for 2011 to fund  relief operations in the face of spreading humanitarian crises  in Africa and Asia.


The south is controlled by al Shabaab Islamist insurgents,  affiliated to al Qaeda, who are fighting to topple the  Western-backed government. The group also controls parts of the  capital Mogadishu and central Somalia.

In early July, the rebels lifted a ban on food aid which they  had said created dependency.  Some analysts say they are allowing aid in because they fear  a public backlash if they do not. Others say the rebels want  bribes. Clinton said Washington was “cautiously optimistic” al  Shabaab would allow unrestricted access to famine-hit areas.

The U.N. has said the inability of food agencies to work in  the region because of the ban had contributed to the crisis.

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