‘Somalia on Verge of Worst Humanitarian Tragedy’ | by Yohannan Chemarapally

by Oct 13, 2011Africa

WAR torn Somalia faces yet another grave threat as the worst drought in decades devastates vast expanses of land in the Horn of Africa region. The other countries affected to a lesser extent are Ethiopia and Kenya. By early August, according to reports by international agencies, 29,000 children under the age of 5 had perished in Somalia due to drought related factors. The UN has said that 640,000 children are acutely malnourished raising the possibility of a further escalation of the mortality rates among children. The UN without giving precise numbers has said that already tens of thousands of people in Somalia have perished in the drought. The UN had in the first week of August declared three more regions in Somalia as famine affected, raising the total number of provinces affected to five. Out of a population of 7.5 million, the UN claims that 3.2 million are in immediate need of food aid. The UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon issued an appeal stating that more than 11 million people in the region need “urgent assistance to stay alive, as they face their worst drought in decades”.
Many experts are already describing the current drought as the worst in the region for the last sixty years. Two consecutive years of poor rains has resulted in one of the driest years in many pastoral zones of the region. The UN High Commissioner for Refugees, Antonio Guterres has called the conflict and the drought in the region “as the worst humanitarian crisis in the world today”. According to the UN, one in three Somali children is suffering from malnutrition. Famine is defined as a crude mortality rate of more than 2 people per 10,000 every day and the wasting rates of above 30 percent among children under five. The UN has said that 500,000 Somali children are at risk and has appealed for an extra $300 million to feed the hungry till September.

Aid agencies have warned that at least $1 billion will be needed before the year ends to meet the needs of those suffering as a result of the famine. 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. The UN had made an appeal for $500 million in 2010 to assist in food security in the East African region but could secure only less than half of the amount from international donors. “There has been a catastrophic breakdown of the world’s collective responsibility to act”, the Oxfam’s Director for the Horn of Africa, Fran Equiza had said in late July. He said that 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 UN 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 had tripled in Somalia making it difficult for the average Somali to subsist on a nutritional diet.

The Islamist Resistance movement, Al Shabab (the Youth) which is battling African Union (AU) forces for the control of the government, has denied that there is a famine on the scale being reported by international aid agencies and the western media. The Shabab, which is known to have loose links with al Qaeda, had initially declined to allow the World Food Program (WFP) access to areas under their control. The al Shabab till recently was in control of large sections of the capital. They withdrew from the capital in early August for tactical reasons and are now staging hit and run attacks against the AU peacekeepers, whose presence is keeping the American backed “transitional federal government” afloat. The rebels control many of the key towns and the surrounding countryside. According to international agencies, aid is reaching to only 20 per cent of the 2.6 million Somalis who are in urgent need of it. The UN has also said that around 4 million Kenyans are also threatened by starvation and predicted that the famine will last at least till the end of this year.

With tens of thousands of Somalis fleeing from their country 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 their control in southern and central Sudan. Everyone agrees that it is the civil war that has gone on for two decades that has made a seasonal drought turn into a large scale famine. The al Shabab leadership had said that they would allow relief agencies “with no hidden agendas” access to drought affected areas under their control. The UN was allowed to ferry much needed food aid to the rebel controlled town of Baidoa. The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) has also been allowed entry into many areas by the rebels. The ICRC has reported that even in the Bay and Lower Shabelle region, Somalia’s traditional breadbasket, and 11 per cent of the children less than five years were suffering from acute malnutrition.

The ICRC’s economic security coordinator, Andrea Heath said recently that the Somalis are no longer able to cope “with 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 have said that it is not the al Shabab that is responsible for exacerbating the humanitarian situation. They say it is the lack of resources that has prohibited 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 American government which prohibits any form of material support for the militants.

The al Shabab, which was certified as a terrorist organisation by the US in 2008, imposes taxes in some areas they control for aid to pass through. The presence of US armed and financed militias along the border with Ethiopia and Kenya had made Somali farmers give up their occupations and may have contributed to 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 counteract 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 till the end of 2012 at least.

When Somalia was a stable and united country, the central governments used to successfully tackle the periodic large scale droughts that used to affect the region. Mohamad Osman Omar, the former Somali ambassador to India in a recent article emphasised that famine was not a “new phenomenon” in Somalia. In 1974-75, the socialist government at the time with the help of the Soviet Union transported 150,000 famine stricken people from central Somalia to areas near Juba and Shabelle rivers, where they were trained in farming and fishing. But at that time the country had a government. Today, the government’s writ scarcely extends beyond the capital Mogadishu. The Islamic Courts Union (ICU) had managed to defeat the warlords in 2006 and establish a tenuous peace after 15 years of non-stop violence. The lull only lasted for six months after the Bush administration ordered the Ethiopian government to invade Somalia to dislodge the ICU,   which on unspecified grounds was 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 Americans. The al Shabab was the fighting arm of the ICU.

Most of the drought stricken Somalis are heading towards northeastern Kenya, overcrowding camps built in 1991 when the civil war in their country started in earnest. The Kenyan government was initially reluctant to allow in more refugees fearing that the facilities would become dangerously overcrowded and provide cover for al Shabab infiltrators. Kenya, along with Ethiopia and Uganda are spearheading the African Union efforts to militarily defeat and sideline the al Shabab. Both Kenya and Ethiopia have sizeable populations of Somali origin that have raised the banner of separatism in the past.

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

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