The International Committee of the Red Cross has begun distributing food to tens of thousands of drought and war-affected people in southern and central Somalia.
The Red Cross says it aims to provide food for some 1.1 million people suffering from severe food shortages by December.
This first round of food distributions is taking place in the Gedo region, one of the hardest-hit areas of southern and central Somalia. Red Cross aid workers there are providing 72,000 people with enough beans, oil and rice to cover their needs for one month.
ICRC spokeswoman Nicole Engelbrecht describes the situation of people living in southern and central Somalia as dire. She tells VOA they are suffering from the consequences of long-standing conflict and severe drought.
“These are people who have not been able to plant anything and to harvest anything as a consequence," Engelbrecht says. "So, they really have very, very great difficulties in making ends meet and in surviving in that type of situation. They are the ones who most urgently need and we are starting in Gedo, but there are other distributions that will follow.”
An internally displaced Somali woman mourns near the body of her son, who died of malnourishment, next to their temporary home in Hodan district, south of Mogadishu, September 20, 2011. (Reuters)
The food distributions are taking place in a dangerous environment, areas that are controlled by the Islamist al-Shabab militants. The region is off-limits to most United Nations and private aid organizations. The Red Cross is one of only a few agencies allowed to operate there.
The ICRC has been working in the region for many years. During that time, it says it has managed to gain the trust of all parties and persuade the rebel group that it has no political agenda. Its only objective is to assist people in need.
Somalia is the country most affected by the severe drought gripping the Horn of Africa. The United Nations has warned that 750,000 people in Somalia who lack food are at risk of death without urgent help.
The Red Cross agrees its huge food distribution operation will keep many people alive. But Nicole Engelbrecht tells VOA the food distributions will relieve only the immediate suffering of the people.
She says the ICRC is also working to give people the means to sustain their own livelihoods, so they can survive beyond the next harvest.
“So, it is very important that food distributions are carried out together with other means," says Engelbrecht. "And, what we are doing at the same time is we provide seed and fertilizer for 240,000 farmers ahead of the planting season, which is soon to start. And, they can plant these seeds and, hopefully, all this maize, sorghum, cowpea and sesame should be ready to be harvested by the beginning of the year if now the rainy season goes well.”
But even if the rain is abundant, Engelbrecht cautions the harvest season will provide only 30 percent of the country’s annual food production.
She says the harvest will help Somalis recover from the devastating effects of the drought, but the food security situation will remain fragile for some time.