By JEFFREY GETTLEMAN
Published: September 5, 2011
NAIROBI, Kenya â€” The United Nations announced on Monday that Somalia‘s famine had spread to a sixth area within the country, with officials warning that 750,000 people could die in the next few months unless aid efforts were scaled up.
A combination of drought, war, restrictions on aid groups and years of chaos have pushed 4 million Somalis â€” more than half the population â€” into “crisis,” according to the United Nations. Agricultural production is just a quarter of what it normally is, and food prices continue to soar.
“We can’t underestimate the scale of the crisis,” said Mark Bowden, the United Nations’s humanitarian coordinator for Somalia. “Southern Somalia is the epicenter of the famine area in the Horn of Africa. It’s the source of most of the refugees, and we need to refocus our efforts.”
In July, the United Nations declared that parts of southern Somalia had met the technical criteria of famine as defined by certain thresholds of death and malnutrition rates. Since then, the famine has slowly spread, covering a large chunk of the southern third of Somalia, including parts of the capital, Mogadishu, and several farming areas, which means food production has been crippled.
On Monday, the United Nations added the entire Bay region, where nearly 60 percent of children are acutely malnourished, to the list of famine-stricken areas. When pushed for numbers on how many people have died across Somalia so far, Mr. Bowden said: “We can’t give an exact figure, but we can say tens of thousands of people have died over the last three to four months, over half of whom are children. That translates into hundreds a day.”
Somalia has lurched from crisis to crisis since its central government collapsed in 1991. There have been more than a dozen attempts to restore a functioning central government, and the United Nations is currently holding a conference in Mogadishu to bring political leaders together to discuss future plans.
But much of southern Somalia is still ruled by the Shabab Islamist militant group, which has forced out many large aid organizations and has even prevented starving people from fleeing drought areas. Though the International Committee of the Red Cross and several Muslim charities are bringing food aid to Shabab-controlled areas, residents there complain that gunmen steal much of the food. Similar complaints have been lodged in the government-controlled areas of Mogadishu.
Another rising concern is disease. Measles, cholera, malaria and typhoid have already begun to sweep through displaced persons camps where sick and starving people have congregated in the hopes of getting aid. Aid officials predict that the drought, which has hit Kenya and Ethiopia as well, will end in October, but the ensuing rains could raise the risk of waterborne and infectious diseases.
“A massive, multisectoral response is critical to prevent additional deaths and total livelihood/social collapse,” said a statement Monday by the Famine Early Warning Systems Network and the Food Security and Nutrition Analysis Unit, which are financed by the American government and the United Nations. “Assuming current levels of response continue, famine is expected to spread further over the coming four months.”
Reuben Kyama contributed reporting