UN Declares Famine in Somalia

The United Nations declared a famine Wednesday in parts of southern Somalia and warned that the suffering could rapidly spread without a massive and immediate international response. The crisis in Somalia – a failing state mired in internal conflict and suffering the worst drought in half a century – has been escalating steadily for months as aid agencies have made please to the international community to intervene.

Wednesday, the humanitarian agency Oxfam blamed international donors for the potentially catastrophic situation at hand. “Several rich governments are guilty of willful neglect as the aid effort to avert catastrophe in East Africa limps along due to an $800 million shortfall,” said an Oxfam statement. (CNN)

Thousands of Somalis have fled the country in search of food and water, trekking for days under scorching sun toward refugee camps in neighbouring Kenya and Ethiopia.

“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,” said Mark Bowden, the U.N. humanitarian coordinator for Somalia. “We still do not have all the resources for food, clean water, shelter and health services to save the lives of hundreds of thousands of Somalis in desperate need.” He said nearly half of the people in Somalia – 3.7 million of them – are now in crisis and roughly $300 million in aid is needed in the next two months. Aid workers call it the worst food crisis since a famine in Ethiopia in the mid-1980s that killed about 1 million people. “Every day of delay in assistance is literally a matter of life or death for children and their families in the famine-affected areas,” Bowden said. (CNN) “Somalia is facing its worst food security crisis in the last 20 years,” Bowden said. “This desperate situation requires urgent action to save lives.” (CBC)

The United Nations uses a five-step scale to measure hunger. Stage 5, or famine, means that acute malnutrition rates are 30% or more, people do not have adequate calorie or water intake and mortality rates are greater than two adults of four children per day per 10,000 people.

Think of it this way, said Lawrence Haddad, director of the UK-based Institute for Development Studies: If famine were declared in the United States, 3,000 or more children would be dying every day from lack of food and water. “This is big,” he said. “We have to act quickly, now.” (CNN)

Oxfam defines famine as a cocktail of causes: a “triple failure of food production, people’s ability to access food and, finally and most crucially in the political response by governments and international donors. Crop failure and poverty leave people vulnerable to starvation – but famine only occurs with political failure.” (CNN)
Farming used to be a term equated solely with a large-scale shortage of food. But the term slipped out of the official lexicom after it came to encompass a variety of factors that add up to a complex emergency, said Patrick Webb, an expert in food security at the Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy at Tufts University. “Actually, a lot of famine happens when there is food in the market,” he said. “It’s about people’s inability to acquire that food. Famine represents a catastrophic failure of all the systems that people rely on to survive.” (CNN) That includes the deaths of livestock, displacement of people and conflict.

And that is what has happened in southern Somalia, where people have had to make heart-wrenching choices simply to stay alive. A mother might have to decide whether to keep her baby alive or split her money to feed all her children. A family may take down their thatched roof, the only shelter they have, to make sure a precious cow can eat. Grandparents might forgo their share of a meal to ensure survival for the youngest generation. Webb said many Americans stung by the recession have had to make difficult choices. Multiply that by many times to get an idea of what it means to be Somali right now. “The thing about food is that you have to have it every day,” he said. “It’s not like buying a car or clothes. It’s where the rubber meets the road.” (CNN)

Save the Children’s Sonia Zambakides told the BBC the situation in Somalia was shocking. “I was talking to mothers with children, the children looked maybe nine months to one year old – the mothers were telling the children they were three and four years old, so they are absolutely tiny.” (BBC) She said some of the mothers had walked up to six days with no food to try and find help.

The BBC’s Mohammed Mwailmu in Mogadishu, says he met a woman called Habiba at a camp set up for the drought victims in the capital who had walked 200 km (125 miles) from her village near Buurhakaba city in south-west Somalia. Her five children were with her, but the youngest ones – aged two years and five years – died on the way. She said she abandoned their bodies along the roadside because she was too weak to dig graves.

The BBC’s Africa corresponding Andrew Harding says the emotive word “famine” is used rarely and carefully by humanitarian organizations, and it is the first time since 1992 that the word has been applied to a situation in Somalia.

After Wednesday’s declaration of famine, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton announced $28 million in additional funding for the crisis. “We have already responded with over $431 million in food and nonfood emergency assistance this year alone,” Clinton said in a statement. “But it is not enough – the need is only expected to increase and more must be done by the United States and the international community.” (CNN)

Canada has contributed roughly $22.35 million for humanitarian assistance to the region this year, with half the amount going toward helping out the Somalia refugee situation. Oxfam urged Canada Wednesday to boost the total to $40 million.

Britain has pledged $145 million in the past two weeks, about 15 percent of what is needed – and the European Union pledged around $8 million, with more expected in coming days. The UK Secretary of State for International Development, Andrew Mitchell, said the response to many European and developed countries to the crisis in the Horn of Africa had been “derisory and dangerously inadequate… The fact that a famine has been declared shows just how grave the situation has become. It is time for the world to help,” he said. (BBC)

Spain has promised nearly $10 million and Germany around $8.5 million but Oxfram said France has so far not pledged any more money, and Denmark and Italy have said no significant new sums are available.

“There is no time to waste if we are to avoid massive loss of life,” said Oxfam Regional Director Fran Equiza in a statement. “We must not stand by and watch this tragedy unfold before our eyes. The world has been slow to recognize the severity of this crisis, but there is no longer any excuse for inaction.” (CBC)

Part of the problem with donations is that it’s politically difficult to give money for an event that has not happened yet, Haddad said. He understood Oxfam’s position and the frustration of aid workers on the front lines who are bearing witness to immense human suffering. But how do you justify millions for catastrophe that “might” happened, he asked. (CNN)

About 10 million people are at risk of famine in the Horn of Africa. Somalia, wracked by years of internal violence and insecurity, is the worst affected. Many Somalis have fled to the Dabaab, a refugee complex in Kenya intended to house 90,000 but now bursting with 400,000 people.

Internal strife has exacerbated drought-caused food shortages and livestock deaths. The nation has not had an effective government for two decades and government forces have been battling Al-Shabaab militants in the capital, Mogadishu.

Humanitarian agencies have not been able to access famine-affected areas, said Susan Rice, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations. “Al-Shabaab is principally responsible for exacerbating the consequences of the drought situation by preventing its own people from being able to access critically needed assistance,” she said. (CNN)

Earlier this month, the al Qaeda-linked group pledged to allow aid groups access to areas under its control, reversing an earlier decision banning them. The militants had accused Western humanitarians of being anti-Muslim. Humanitarian agencies welcomed the new pledge, but said the earlier ban intensified the crisis. U.N. officials were able to airlift emergency supplies to southern Somalia last week after the Islamist militants promised to lift the ban.

Adrian Edwards, a spokesman for the UN refugee agency, told reporters that the situation is “not what we want it to be… We do have a very minimal presence, and we have regular visits into the country, but we need significantly better access than we have at the moment to address an emergency of this scale,” he said, speaking from Geneva. (BBC)

The UN World Food Programme, which is trying to feed 1.5 million people, estimates that as many as a million people are in areas it cannot currently access. “Once we have the assurances of security and the ability to have full access to deliver and distribute and monitor, then we will be prepared to go back in,” Emilia Caselia, a spokeswoman for the WFP, told the Associated Press news agency. (BBC)

Johnnie Carson, the US assistant secretary of state for African affairs, said the US was assessing if they were seeing “real change” from al-Shabab, or whether the group planned to impose some kind of “taxation” on aid deliveries. “Al-Shabab’s activities have clearly made the current situation much worse,” Mr. Carson said. “We call on all of those in south-central Somalia who have it within their authority to allow refugee groups and organizations to operate there to do so.” (BBC)

The south is home to about 80% of the nation’s malnourished children, the U.N. Children’s Fund said.

“More than ever, Somali people need and deserve our full attention,” Bowden said. “At this time of crisis, we must make exceptional efforts to support Somalis wherever they are in need and expect that all parties will do the same.” (CNN)

In a separate development, Amnesty International says children in Somalia are being systematically recruited as child soldiers by militant groups such as al-Shabab. Drawing on interviews from more than 200 Somalis who have fled their country, the rights group says some of those recruited are as young as eight years old. The report says al-Shabab lures children with promises of money and mobile phones, but also carries out abductions.

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