The famine declaration comes months after U.N. and other aid agencies began sounding the alarm about a devastating drought in the Horn of Africa, where an estimated 10 million people are in need of help. The crisis has been aggravated by civil strife, low rainfall rates not seen in half a century and sharp increases in food prices.
“Somalia is facing its worst food security crisis in the last 20 years,” Mark Bowden, the top U.N. official in charge of humanitarian aid to Somalia, told reporters, adding that an infusion of $300 million is needed in the next two months to help alleviate the crisis.
For nearly two decades, Somalia has grappled with civil war and ineffective governments. Today, a weak and corrupt transitional government, backed by the United States and its allies, is in place, with little ability to address the crisis. Much of its energy is focused on preventing the capital, Mogadishu, from being overtaken by the al-Qaeda-linked al-Shabab militia.
In 1992, hundreds of thousands of Somalis starved to death, prompting a U.S.-led peacekeeping force to intervene. Within months, the force was engaged in an intense conflict to uproot Somali warlords. It eventually withdrew after 18 American soldiers were killed in a battle the following year, an incident portrayed in the book and movie “Black Hawk Down.”
This time, the famine is unfolding in the southern Somali regions of Bakool and Lower Shabelle, which are largely controlled by al-Shabab. Bowden said that nearly half of Somalia’s 3.7 million people face hunger, malnutrition and other related problems. Of those, 2.8 million live in the south.
“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 diseases,” Bowden said. “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.”
Famine, said Bowden, is officially declared when acute malnutrition rates among children exceed 30 percent and when more than two people per 10,000 die every day.
Today, malnutrition rates in Somalia are the highest in the world; in some parts of the south, more than half of all children are severely malnourished. In some areas of Bakool and Lower Shabelle, six children per 10,000 under the age of 5 are dying every day, Bowden said.
On Wednesday, the United States announced it would give an additional $28 million in aid to Somalis. This year alone, it has provided more than $431 million in food and other emergency assistance to the eastern Horn of Africa, making it the region’s largest donor nation.
“In Somalia, 20 years without a central government and the relentless terrorism by al-Shabab against its own people has turned an already severe situation into a dire one that is only expected to get worse,” Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said in a statement.