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Starving nation

Print edition : Sep 23, 2011 T+T-
A mother closes the eyes of her two-year-old son moments after he died from malnutrition and related complications at a hospital in Mogadishu on August 15. The woman, her husband and their three children had fled their village in the drought-stricken Lower Shabelle region of southern Somalia to Mogadishu in search of refuge.-ROBERTO SCHMIDT/AFP

A mother closes the eyes of her two-year-old son moments after he died from malnutrition and related complications at a hospital in Mogadishu on August 15. The woman, her husband and their three children had fled their village in the drought-stricken Lower Shabelle region of southern Somalia to Mogadishu in search of refuge.-ROBERTO SCHMIDT/AFP

The worst drought in 60 years claims 29,000 Somali children under five as the country faces an acute food shortage.

WAR-TORN Somalia faces yet another crisis as the worst drought in decades devastates vast expanses of land in the Horn of Africa region. Two other countries in the region, Ethiopia and Kenya, are also affected but to a lesser extent.

International agencies reported that by early August, 29,000 children under the age of five had perished in Somalia owing to the drought conditions. The United Nations maintained that 640,000 Somali children were acutely malnourished, raising the possibility of a further escalation of the child mortality rates. It said that one out of three Somali children was suffering from malnutrition. Without giving precise numbers, the U.N. said that tens of thousands of people had perished in the drought. In the first week of August, the U.N. declared three more regions in the country famine affected, raising the total number of provinces affected so far to five. Most affected areas are in the south. The U.N. said that around four million Kenyans were also threatened by starvation and predicted that the famine would last until the end of the year.

U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon issued an appeal stating that more than 11 million people needed urgent assistance to stay alive, as they face their worst drought in decades. The U.N. declared that 3.2 million people were in immediate need of food aid.

Many experts have already described the Somali drought as the worst in the region in 60 years. Two consecutive years of poor rains have resulted in one of the driest years in many pastoral zones. The U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), Antonio Guterres, described the ongoing conflict and drought in the region as the worst humanitarian crisis in the world today.

A famine is measured by the rates of hunger, malnutrition and deaths, but the key factor is that it must be widespread. Technically, famine is defined as a crude mortality rate of more than two persons per 10,000 every day and the wasting rates of above 30 per cent among children under five. The U.N. has said that 500,000 Somali children are at risk and has appealed for an additional amount of $300 million to feed the hungry until September.

Aid agencies said that an assistance of at least $1 billion would be needed before the year end to meet the needs of the drought victims. However, the response from the international community, especially the West, has not been good. Less than one-fifth of the money requested by international aid agencies has materialised. In 2010, the U.N. had appealed for an aid of $500 million in order to provide food security in the East African region but could secure only less than half of the amount from international donors. According to international agencies, aid has reached only 20 per cent of the 2.6 million Somalis.

There has been a catastrophic breakdown of the world's collective responsibility to act, Oxfam's director for the Horn of Africa, Fran Equiza, said in late July. He said the international community was slow to react to the catastrophe in East Africa. The warning signs have been seen for months. By the time the U.N. calls it a famine, it is already a signal for a large-scale loss of life.

The United States-funded Famine Early Warning System (FEWS) had alerted the international community and the governments of the region about the impending crisis on six occasions last year. But the warnings were ignored. To complicate matters further, the price of food tripled in Somalia, making it difficult for the average Somali, to afford a nutritional diet.

The Islamist resistance movement, Al Shabab (The Youth), which is battling the forces of the African Union (A.U.) for control of the government, denied that there was a famine on the scale being reported by international aid agencies and the Western media. Al Shabab, which is known to have loose links with Al Qaeda, had initially declined to allow the World Food Programme (WFP) access to areas under its control. Until recently, it was in control of large sections of the capital, Mogadishu. Its forces withdrew from the capital in early August for tactical reasons and are now staging hit-and-run attacks against the A.U. peacekeepers, whose presence is keeping the U.S.-backed transitional federal government afloat. The rebels control many key towns and the surrounding countryside.

With tens of thousands of Somalis fleeing to Kenya, Ethiopia and Djibouti to escape the deadly combination of prolonged drought and endless violence, the rebel leadership seems to have mellowed, allowing food aid to be ferried into areas under its control in southern and central Somalia.

The Al Shabab leadership said it would allow relief agencies with no hidden agendas access to drought-affected areas under its control. The U.N. was allowed to ferry food aid to the rebel-controlled town of Baidoa.

The rebels have allowed the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) entry into many areas under their control. The ICRC reported that even in the Bay and Lower Shabelle region, Somalia's traditional breadbasket, 11 per cent of the children under five were suffering from acute malnutrition.

The ICRC's economic security coordinator, Andrea Heath, said recently that the Somalis were no longer able to cope with the harsh climate conditions, such as the current drought, while at the same time struggling to survive armed conflict and other violence. Officials in charge of disbursing aid said it was wrong to hold Al Shabab responsible for exacerbating the humanitarian situation. They said it was the lack of resources that prevented the disbursement of aid.

The limits on our actions are more on the side of logistics than access, said a spokesperson for the ICRC. Also hampering the aid efforts are restrictions imposed by the U.S. government, which prohibits any form of materiel support for the militants.

Al Shabab, which was listed as a terrorist organisation by the U.S. in 2008, imposes taxes in some areas under its control for aid to pass through. The presence of militias armed and financed by the U.S. along Somalia's borders with Ethiopia and Kenya had perhaps made Somali farmers give up farming and this may have contributed to the shortfall in food supplies. Many experts believe that even if seasonal rains arrive on schedule in September and October, it will not be sufficient to counter the worst effects of the famine. The emaciated Somalis are in no physical condition to till the land. According to international aid workers reporting from the field, a large segment of the Somali population is expected to be dependent on food aid at least until the end of 2012.

When Somalia was a stable and united country, the central government used to tackle successfully the periodic droughts that affected the region. Everyone agrees that it is the decades-long civil war that has made a seasonal drought turn into a large-scale famine. Mohamad Osman Omar, the former Somali Ambassador to India, emphasised in a recent article that famine was not a new phenomenon in Somalia. In 1974-75, the socialist government, with the help of the Soviet Union, transported 150,000 famine-stricken people from central Somalia to areas near the Juba and Shabelle rivers, where they were trained in farming and fishing. But at the time the country had a government. Today, the government's writ scarcely extends beyond Mogadishu.

The Islamic Courts Union (ICU) managed to defeat the warlords in 2006 and establish a tenuous peace after 15 years of non-stop violence. The lull lasted for six months only, until the George Bush administration ordered the Ethiopian government to invade Somalia to dislodge the ICU, which, on unspecified grounds, had been branded as a terror group.

The irony of it all is that Shaikh Sharif Shaikh Ahmad, the ICU leader, is now the President of the country and is being backed to the hilt by the U.S. Al Shabab was the fighting arm of the ICU.

Most of the drought-stricken Somalis are heading towards north-eastern Kenya, where the camps built in 1991, when the civil war began in right earnest, are getting overcrowded. The Kenyan government was initially reluctant to allow the refugees entry, fearing that the facilities would become dangerously overcrowded and provide cover for Al Shabab infiltrators. Kenya, along with Ethiopia and Uganda, is spearheading the A.U. efforts to defeat and sideline Al Shabab. Kenya and Ethiopia have sizable populations of Somali origin which have raised the banner of separatism in the past.

The last major famine in Somalia occurred in 1992 as a result of internecine war and not drought. More than 300,000 people reportedly died of starvation then. Many observers of the region are of the opinion that the U.N. needs to play a more hands-on role in Somalia. Food should be expeditiously airdropped if access to the worst-affected areas is difficult by road. Washington's earlier decision to prevent aid workers from going into Al Shabab-controlled areas has contributed a lot to the unfolding humanitarian crisis.