Somalia famine worst in 20 years, UN declares

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  • Mark Bowden
    American writer

The United Nations declared today that southern Somalia is experiencing its worst famine in 20 years. Severe drought has left 3.7 million people at risk of starvation, and Somalia's civil war is compounding the crisis.

"This desperate situation requires urgent action to save lives," Mark Bowden, the UN Humanitarian Coordinator for Somalia, said at a press conference today in Nairobi, Kenya. "If we don't act now, famine will spread ... due to poor harvests and infectious disease outbreaks." You can watch Bowden's remarks in the video below.

The famine is caused in large part by the region's worst drought in 60 years.

There are already some 750,000 Somali refugees in Kenya and Ethiopia. Some 9,000 new Somali refugees are now fleeing to Kenya every week, said Shannon Scribner, humanitarian policy coordinator with the aid group Oxfam America, in an interview with The Envoy Wednesday. Another 3,000 Somali refugees per week are entering Ethiopia, she said.

And U.S. officials, recently back from a fact-finding mission in the Horn of Africa, warn the exodus of refugees could well increase in the coming weeks.

"We have heard troubling reports from inside Somalia that the combined daily arrival rates of 3,200 new refugees in Ethiopia and Kenya could rise still more dramatically as the situation in Somalia grows increasingly desperate," Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Ruben Brigerty told journalists at a special State Department briefing on the crisis Tuesday.

The drought and food security crisis in the Horn of Africa are compounded by the total erosion of Somali governance over the course of a civil war that dates back to 1992. A fragile transitional government now holds power in the capital Mogadishu, while the Islamist militant group al-Shabab controls in other parts of the country.

"You have not had a government in Somalia for 22 years," said Scribner. Additionally, she described, there's a civil war and extreme poverty. "People don't have any assets to cope ... They don't have food reserves. They don't have livestock. When the livestock dies, they don't have much left."

Somalia's militant al-Shabab faction kicked out aid groups in 2009, declaring them un-Islamic. But recently al-Shabab reversed the decision, citing the gravity of the crisis.

The United States--historically the largest donor to the Horn of Africa--prohibits U.S. assistance from going to parts of Somalia under Shabab control, given Shabab's al Qaeda ties and designation as a terrorist group.

Some Africa experts and humanitarian aid groups are urging the United States to suspend its restrictions on aid to Somalia in view of the crisis. Formal suspension of the policy will take time to work through the bureaucratic red tape. Famine victims obviously cannot afford to wait that long, they note.

"Groups are really ready and eager to go back in [to Somalia] and re-establish programs that they had to stop in 2009." said Sarah Margon, a former Senate staffer and Africa specialist at the Center for American Progress, in an interview with the Envoy Wednesday. "The question is how quickly can they get up and running. That is where the legal restrictions" slow things down.

"The need is so extensive," Margon said, adding that policymakers have to consider "not just the individuals [affected] in south central Somalia where the famine is, but they also have to think about the number of Somalis fleeing the country on a regular basis."

Kenya has been resistant to further expanding the main refugee camp that now shelters some 350,000 Somalis. There are also concerns that tensions over scarce resources in areas around the camps could cause conflict to spread.

Margon and Scribner also urged the Obama administration to treat the crisis in a regional context, engaging all countries in the Horn of Africa--Somalia, Kenya, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Djibouti.

"There's been such a strong focus [in the Bush and Obama administrations] on the security side of things," and counter-terrorism, Margon said. "Now they have to address a famine of 3 to 4 million people."

"In a sense, a comprehensive strategy for Somalia should look more broadly to the Horn of Africa," Margon said. "You need regional engagement to deal with Somalia. Kenya, Eritrea, Djibouti, Ethiopia, are all front line states that need to be part of a process."

"We need to stop treating it as a country issue, it's a regional issue," Scribner agreed.

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