More than half of Somalis now face starvation

UN to announce that the famine in the Horn of Africa is spreading and the situation 'will become worse and worse'
  • @emilydugan

The famine in Somalia has spread to new regions, the UN will announce tomorrow, with the food crisis yet to reach its peak. The new front is expected to be in the Bay region in south-central Somalia.

Some four million people – more than 50 per cent of the population – are now in crisis, and the famine is expected to spread further in the coming months. In total almost 13 million people are facing starvation in the Horn of Africa, aid agencies estimate.

American diplomatic cables released by WikiLeaks show that the UN was lobbying for help to avert catastrophe in Somalia as long ago as 2008, but official reaction to the disaster was exceedingly sluggish until recently. Now, if the rains do not come in October, the future for the millions still trapped without food amid the civil war in southern Somalia looks even more uncertain.

Even if the rains do come in October, there will be no harvest until early 2012, meaning people will remain in urgent need of sustenance for months to come. Access for aid organisations is still a serious issue in the worst-hit south-central region. With the exception of a few charities, such as Islamic Relief and the Red Cross, most Western agencies are banned by the al-Qa'ida-linked rebel group al-Shabaab. The majority of aid is being distributed to displaced people who have made it to Mogadishu or to refugee camps in Kenya and Ethiopia. Dr Unni Karunakara, international president of Médecins sans Frontières (MSF), said: "It's the last-mile problem. Food is coming to Mogadishu, but getting it to the people who need it is going to remain hugely problematic."

After a visit to southern Somalia last week, UNHCR chief Antonio Guterres said that the peak of the crisis had not yet been reached. "From the point of view of the food security of the people, obviously, as time goes by, until the next harvest is possible, the situation will become worse and worse," he said. A summit begins today in Mogadishu aiming to create a "road map" towards the election of a new Somali president in August 2012. The three-day meeting, organised by the UN, is the first major political conference in war-ravaged Mogadishu in four years.

If Somalia's weak Western-backed transitional government is not strengthened, the lawlessness which allowed famine to thrive and peace to remain elusive will not abate. Last week, at least 27 people were killed in heavy fighting in the semi-autonomous Galmudug region in central Somalia.

Dr Karunakara was among many who doubted a UN summit would bring stability. "I really have difficulty imagining what the UN can do," he said. However, Augustine Mahiga, special envoy of the UN secretary-general, defended the summit, saying: "This landmark meeting is a Somali-led and Somali-owned process. The UN is facilitating the meeting, as requested by the Somalis."

In Kenya, where the crisis has pushed some 440,000 Somalis to Dadaab, the world's largest refugee camp, aid organisations have had better news. A multimillion-pound camp within Dadaab which had been left empty for months was finally given the go-ahead by the Kenyan government two weeks ago to open its gates.

More than 6,000 people have now set up home in the camp, called Ifo II, which has electricity, pumped water and properly dug latrines. The camp, which was partly funded by Oxfam, also has several schools which will open in early 2012. Magdalen Nandawula, Oxfam's programme manager at Dadaab, said: "More people will move in this coming week. We have had facilities there lying idle for too long; now finally people are using them."

Hamdi Bashir, 46, was among the first to move into the newly opened camp. He came from Buale in Somalia two weeks ago with his wife and 13 children. He said: "I'm very much thankful to God. Before I had no shelter, no water. Now we have water."

While urgent hunger was what finally drove Mr Bashir and his family to Kenya, it is an end to Somalia's civil war – rather than rains – that he most wishes for. "We Somalis live in insecurity in our country, and we have fled to different regions of the world. Peace and security is the most important thing in human life."

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