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Food Crisis and Famine in Somalia

August 15, 2011

On July 20, in the midst of a severe and ongoing food crisis in the Horn of Africa, the United Nations officially declared a famine in two areas of southern Somalia. This is the first time in 25 years that the UN has used the designation, which is given only when more than 30% of children are acutely malnourished, and four of every 10,000 die each day. In Somalia, a fractured central government coupled with poor infrastructure, poverty, an arid climate and years of continuous conflict have culminated in the worst humanitarian crisis the region has seen in decades.

Food availability in the Horn of Africa has progressively declined due to lack of seasonal rainfall for the past two consecutive years. This has caused crop failure and livestock deaths, as well as a spike in food prices that have now reached their highest points in history. Climate change has long been credited as a partial cause of this year’s drought—the worst to hit East Africa in 60 years. Researchers have focused on developing early-warning systems that will detect weather conditions conducive to food crises such as these. But without a stable government to allow for implementation of aid and infrastructure programs, little can be done to improve food security.

One of the greatest concerns in Somalia is the unrelenting conflict caused by terrorist group al-Shabaab, which controls much of the southern region. Since 2007 it has been undercutting Somalia’s weak transitional government and has made an intensive effort to inhibit western influences. In 2009, the group imposed a ban on all international aid organizations, severely limiting the influx of food aid that had once entered the country. The ban was briefly lifted in early July, but reinstated on several groups, including the United Nations. Following numerous kidnappings and killings of aid workers on the part of al-Shabaab, most humanitarian organizations have withdrawn from southern and central Somalia entirely. Those who remain are left with the regular threat of the militant group, as well as poor infrastructure, making food distribution impossible in many areas.

The United Nations has estimated that nearly $2.5 billion in aid money is needed for effective relief in the region, but thus far has received less than half of that amount from donors. This week, the UN declared famine in three more areas within southern Somalia, and experts predict that the entire southern region will follow. Al-Shabaab was recently driven from Mogadishu by African Union troops, but the resulting flow of internally displaced persons into the capital city has led to cramped and unsafe living conditions in makeshift camps. Poor water and sanitation systems have caused outbreaks of measles and cholera, further increasing the death toll.

A solution for the crisis is not simple. Aid distribution is a consistent challenge, as access to southern Somalia remains extremely limited and resistance from al-Shabaab continues to pose a threat, especially in rural areas. A total lack of infrastructure within the country compounds these difficulties. But with the joint effort of international governments and NGOs, as well as perseverance on the part of African Union peacekeeping troops in the region, hope remains that further exacerbation of the famine could be prevented.

For more information about humanitarian aid in the area:
World Food Programme
Oxfam America

And for a (nearly) comprehensive list of programs and how you can help:
CNN’s Famine in East Africa: How you can help

Leah Selim is a Food Systems MA Candidate in NYU Steinhardt’s Food Studies Program. She is currently interning at the United Nations in the Department of Public Information.

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