That the United Nations has officially declared the drought in their country a famine may mean little to Somalis facing starvation and dire conditions, but the diplomatic community is hoping it will allow the crisis to get public attention and funding.
The announcement came yesterday when top officials from across the UN met with the press to update them on aid delivery, refugee camp conditions and the urgency of the situation. As the UN defines it, a famine is when “acute malnutrition rates among children exceed 30 percent, more than 2 people per 10,000 die per day and people are not able to access food and other basic necessities.”
According to the latest estimate from the U.N. World Food Programme, there are at least 11.3 million people are in need of food assistance in Somalia.
Speaking on the country he has come to know well in his service, Mark Bowden, the United Nations’ humanitarian coordinator for Somalia said:
“If we don’t act now, famine will spread to all eight regions of southern Somalia. Every day of delay in assistance is literally a matter of life or death.”
For Somalia’s children the crisis may be jarring, but for their parents the current famine only the latest humanitarian crisis they have faced. In the early ninties, the central government of Somalia fell apart plunging the country into war and then a subsequent famine and drought that killed hundreds of thousands of people. In this crisis, the drought and the famine are joined by al-Shabab, the Islamist militant group. Aligned with al-Qaeda, the group has taken control of many of the worst affected regions of the country, making aid delivery a dangerous effort.
Josette Sheeran, of the U.N. World Food Programme told CNN International:
“Operations in Somalia are among the highest risk in the world. WFP has lost 14 relief workers there since 2008.”
While the U.S. has not budged on their refusal to negotiate with al-Shabab, it is possible the UN might. As Robert Zeliger, writer for Foreign Policy magazine reports:
As the almost entirely unreported humanitarian disaster in the Horn of Africa grows — with the number of people in need of food aid expected to rise to an estimated 10 million in the coming weeks — one interesting development has been the reversal by al Shabab (the militant Islamist group tied to al Qaeda) to allow aid workers into areas of Somalia under its control. Today, the U.N. World Food Program indicated it might take the group up on its offer.
“We’re assisting thousands of Somali refugees … but if we need to enter south Somalia, we need to work with al-Shabab,” a spokesperson told Al Jazeera. The aid organization had to pull out of al Shabab-controlled areas last year after security risks proved too severe.