Somalia famine officially over, but crisis remains

Posted Feb. 03, 2012, at 8:57 p.m.

NAIROBI, Kenya — The United Nations on Friday declared Somalia’s famine over, but officials warned that more than 2 million Somalis are still in dire need of assistance and that conditions could again slide by May.

“The gains are fragile and will be reversed without continued support,” said Mark Bowden, the U.N. humanitarian coordinator for Somalia.

Since July, when the United Nations declared a famine after successive failed rains, the Horn of Africa nation has been in the grip of one of the worst humanitarian emergencies the region has experienced in recent memory.

Images of emaciated children and weary mothers searching for food punctuated the crisis, as hundreds of thousands of Somalis fled to already overcrowded refugee camps in Kenya, Ethiopia and in the Somali capital, Mogadishu. The situation was exacerbated by Somalia’s al-Qaeda-linked militia, al-Shabab, which prevented aid agencies from helping victims in areas under its control. The Unite d Nations estimates that tens of thousands died last year because of hunger and disease.

On Friday, the United Nations said a scaled-up humanitarian assistance effort, coupled with an exceptional harvest, helped shift the crisis from “a famine” to “a humanitarian emergency. But according to the Food and Agricultural Organization, the latest data indicate that 2.34 million Somalis — about 31 percent of the population — still need “life-saving assistance,” the U.N. said in a statement.

In the whole Horn of Africa region, 9.5 million still need help, the United Nations said.

“We need to use this temporary relief from the worst of the crisis to focus our efforts on life-saving assistance, while building up people’s ability to cope with future drought – and thereby reduce their dependence on aid,” Bowden said. “Recovery is only possible after August if the rains are good and other external factors, such as conflict, do not hamper the progress made so far.”

Senait Gebregzhiabher, the head of the aid agency Oxfam in Somalia, applauded the end of the famine, especially that “125,000 children no longer face severe malnutrition,” but warned that the international community “must not be complacent” and that gains made so far could easily be reversed.

“The situation in Somalia is still in the throes of its worst humanitarian crisis in decades,” Gebregzhiabher said. “The world shouldn’t turn its back on Somalia solely because statistics say there is no longer a famine.”

Although conditions have improved in Somalia, the United Nations and aid agencies face a new crisis in South Sudan, the world’s newest nation, where tribal violence has displaced tens of thousands in a region already suffering from food shortages and other woes. A recent spike in violence in Jonglei state has complicated a dire humanitarian landscape, affecting more than 140,000 people.

“Before the crisis in Jonglei, humanitarian partners were already over-stretched, carrying out some 30 emergency operations across the country,” Valerie Amos, the U.N. under-secretary general for humanitarian affairs, who was visiting South Sudan on Friday, said in a statement. “In some of the worst-hit areas, there are only a handful of partners on the ground.”

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