UN declares famine in parts of Somalia

Posted July 20, 2011, at 6:31 p.m.

JOHANNESBURG, South Africa — On Wednesday, the horror of hunger and death unfolding in the Horn of Africa officially got a name: famine.

It’s actually a very technical term — unless you’re one of those walking for weeks in a last-ditch hope to save your family.

For the U.N. to declare a famine, as it did at a Nairobi news conference, child malnutrition must be 30 percent or higher, and daily deaths at four children per 10,000 people.

According to UNICEF, the U.N. agency that focuses on children, child malnutrition rates in southern Somalia have doubled in a single month — in some places to 55 percent and infant deaths have increased to six per day.

Yet the global response has been dismal. An appeal late last year for $535 million to address the need is still more than $250 million short of its goal. Officials hope the famine declaration will help focus global attention on the Horn of Africa.

Some 3.7 million children in Somalia are facing starvation, the agency says, with another 6.3 million in other countries in the Horn of Africa affected by hunger.

It’s the worst African hunger crisis in 20 years, according the Rozanne Chorlton, UNICEF’s representative on Somalia. The last time things were this bad in Africa was 1991. Then, as now, it was in Somalia.

The U.N. famine declaration Wednesday formally covered two regions of southern Somalia, Bakool and Lower Shabelle, where farmers’ crops failed and their livestock died. But in coming months, neighboring regions will inevitably fall into famine too, said the U.N. humanitarian coordinator for Somalia, Mark Bowden.

U.N. and nongovernmental agencies are appealing for $300 million in the next two months to increase their operations in the worst-hit areas.

If it seems extraordinary that millions of Africans can be facing starvation in 2011, despite the focus of a raft of humanitarian agencies and their early-warning networks, it is, Bowden said.

Part of the problem is that many donors had written off Somalia as too hard, he said in a telephone interview. Aid agencies must grapple with a long-running civil conflict and the extremist al-Shabab militia that controls much of the south, where the worst hunger is.

“We have good warning systems, but we don’t always listen to them, particularly if we put some countries in the too-difficult-to-deal-with basket,” Bowden said.

Two decades with no government and the failure of successive efforts to restore peace have left donors cynical. The country’s global reputation for piracy and mayhem has done it no favors.

The 1991 Somalia famine occurred after civil war destroyed agriculture and clan warlords hijacked humanitarian aid, leading to the U.S.-led Operation Restore Hope that led to bloody fighting with militias in Mogadishu portrayed in the book and film “Black Hawk Down.”

But Bowden, who recently met refugees walking out of Somalia into Ethiopia, said the problem today was mainly one of successive drought, compounded by global warming.

“They are victims of drought. They are also victims of climate change. They’re people who have lost everything after years of successive drought.”

Somalia is the most dangerous country in the world to work in, according to the U.N.’s World Food Program, which has lost 14 relief workers in the past few years. Kidnappings, killings and attacks on aid convoys occur frequently. Two years ago WFP pulled out of Islamist-controlled southern Somalia after the rebels demanded cash payments and other concessions.

U.S. military operations against terrorism suspects also have disrupted humanitarian operations, said Bowden. Insurgents vowed to target foreign aid workers after a U.S. missile strike killed the head of the Islamist al-Shabab militia and 24 other people in 2008. Aden Hashi Ayro was reputedly al-Qaida’s commander in Somalia and linked to a string of attacks on foreign aid workers and journalists.

But WFP head Josette Sheeran said the agency is willing to return to southern Somalia if the insurgents guarantee safe passage and free access to aid. Two regions of Somalia — Bakool and Lower Shabelle — are suffering from famine and eight more are at risk.

“We are absolutely fully committed to going where the hungry are,” she said.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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