The United Nations declared parts of Somalia to be in a state of famine yesterday and said the lives of more than 11 million people across four countries are threatened by the worst drought in the Horn of Africa for 60 years.
Aid experts said the greatest tragedy was that early-warning systems had predicted the emergency but appeals had been ignored. Oxfam accused European governments including France, Italy and Denmark of "morally indefensible wilful neglect" for having paid only $200m (£123m) of the $1bn requested by the UN to stave off humanitarian disaster in the drought-prone region that straddles Somalia, Ethiopia, Kenya and Djibouti.
Speaking in the Kenyan capital, Nairobi, Oxfam's regional director, Fran Equiza, said: "The world has been slow to recognise the severity of this crisis. If more action had been taken we would not now be at the stage where so many people are facing starvation."
The UN humanitarian coordinator for Somalia, Mark Bowden, said $300m was needed in the next two months for Somalia alone. He said that 3.7 million people are in danger across the country, 2.8 million of them in the southern regions of Bakool and Lower Shabelle where the UN has officially declared a famine. Mr Bowden said the emergency could spread to the other six regions of southern Somalia within two months. "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 in desperate need. Every day of delay in assistance is literally a matter of life or death for children and their families in the famine-affected areas," he added.
Hillary Clinton, the US Secretary of State, announced yesterday that Washington will give an extra $28m of emergency aid to combat the famine.
Thousands of families have trekked across Somalia's parched lands to reach refugee camps across the borders for food. One woman told how she walked for six days to reach the largest camp in Kenya, Dadaab, with her three children, the oldest aged seven. "We were hungry and couldn't get work," the woman, Dainabo, 30, told aid workers. "Five days after we arrived my husband died leaving me a widow and my children without a father."
Habiba Mohamud Hassan fled from the capital, Mogadishu, for northern Somalia after her husband, a labourer, was killed during fighting. She told Save the Children that she was unable to feed her three-month-old baby because her breast milk had dried up because of lack of food. "This drought has left us destitute, and the war has taken what little we had left," she said.
Drought is a fact of life in much of the Horn of Africa, but climate experts say dry seasons are becoming longer and harsher, and are affecting ever-wider areas. Twenty years of war have left southern Somalia deforested and it is the first time for 19 years that famine has been declared in areas of the country.
The past two rainy seasons – the Deyr in October and Gu in April – have failed. The herders of the area generally lead a sedentary life for part of the year, settling where rains allow for a harvest of maize or sorghum. But in the past year, no fields have been ploughed and the semi-nomads have moved around with their cattle, goats and camels in search of land to graze on.
The two famine regions are controlled by Islamist insurgents of the al-Shabaab groups, who in 2009 began blocking aid convoys to areas they control because of an ideological opposition to Western influence. Even in the absence of politics, humanitarian work is fraught in south Somalia, where aid workers spend hours negotiating safe passage and paying taxes imposed by bandits acting for different clans.
The UN World Food Programme has welcomed a recent statement by al-Shabaab groups requesting aid in Bakool and Lower Shabelle but is seeking guarantees of safe passage. The global rise in food prices has also played a role in the crisis in Somalia.
The definition of famine
* The UN declares famine when more than 30 per cent of children are acutely malnourished, more than two people in every 10,000 die per day and people have no food or other basic necessities.
* The definition is currently restricted to two regions of Somalia. But according to the World Food Programme, the drought across the Horn of Africa is affecting 3.2 million people in Kenya, 3.7 million in Somalia, 3.2 million in Ethiopia and 117,000 in Djibouti.
* The World Food Programme says it is considering airlifts of high-energy biscuits and food supplements for children and pregnant mothers.
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