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Somalia drought could threaten millions

The United Nations and aid groups warned of a possible looming catastrophe as a severe drought plunged millions of Somalis into crisis after rains failed for several consecutive seasons in the Horn of Africa nation.

The drought has increased the number of malnourished children in some regions, displaced thousands of people and killed thousands of animals. Officials in a central Somali region said 18 people died of drought-related effects.

"The situation is dire. It is an added vulnerability to an already extremely vulnerable people," the UN's humanitarian chief, Valerie Amos, said after touring camps for displaced people in Somalia's semi-autonomous region of Puntland.

Ms Amos's one-day trip was intended, she said, "to remind the people that there is still a long, ongoing problem in Somalia. I don't want the people to forget Somalia. When you have an ongoing problem anywhere in the world, it is easy to slip it from the agenda".

The drought is the latest in a long line of problems for Somalia, which has been mired in conflict since 1991, when warlords toppled the country's last central government, then turned on each other.

According to the UN, the malnutrition rate among children has jumped to 30% in Somalia's southern Juba region, a figure that is double the emergency threshold. Food prices have soared 80% in some regions.

The price increase in the south is attributable in part to traders who are hoarding the food to profit off the drought, said Grainne Moloney, the head of the UN's food security and nutrition analysis unit in Nairobi, Kenya.

Many drought-affected families are fleeing their homes in search of food. In the Galmudug region of central Somalia, officials said they had not seen such drought conditions since 1974.

Citing a recent survey conducted by his administration, Omar Mohamoud, a local government official, said the drought had killed 18 people and displaced thousands.

He said his community has seen about 70% of its sheep and goats, 50% of its cattle and 30% of its camels die in the last three years.

"We are appealing to the international community to respond to the crisis and provide the people with water, food, medicine and shelter," said Mr Mohamoud. "If the international community does not respond to the crisis urgently, a catastrophe of huge proportions is staring us right in the eyes."

British aid group Oxfam said Somalia's current drought could be as serious as one in the early 1990s, when thousands of people died.

"The situation is bad now, but with more months of no rainfall it could become an absolute catastrophe," said Alun McDonald, the group's spokesman in Nairobi. He noted that weather predictions suggested that the next rains "will also be poor or even fail".

The poor rains are even affecting marriages. In a makeshift camp in Garowe town, Nura Farah, a mother of seven children, said the lack of rains led to her divorce.

"When the drought hit us we quarrelled," Ms Farah said. "I told my husband, 'Look, you are a man. So go to town and look for ways to support your family'. But he rejected my request and divorced me and left."

The UN has released £2.8 million from its emergency fund to respond to the drought and is likely to release more in the coming weeks, said Mark Bowden, the world body's Somalia humanitarian co-ordinator. This figure is separate from the £329 million sought by the UN for this year to finance its aid projects in Somalia.

The drought's effects are worsened by the fact that aid agencies' work is restricted in many regions where Islamist insurgents are in control.

Peter Smerdon, the spokesman for the World Food Programme, called on all parties to the Somali conflict to allow his agency free access to help the needy population.

Ms Amos urged Somali politicians to inject "a sense of urgency to their discussions" to end decades of warfare.

Kiki Gbeho, the head of the UN's office for the co-ordination of humanitarian affairs in Somalia, warned that if spring rains expected in April failed, the country "is in a huge problem".