News / Africa

Somalia’s New President Faces Humanitarian Challenges

Somalia's new president Hassan Sheikh Mohamud Sept. 10, 2012
Somalia's new president Hassan Sheikh Mohamud Sept. 10, 2012
Joe DeCapua
Somalia’s new President Hassan Sheikh Mahamud takes office during an easing of the humanitarian crisis in his country. But a top humanitarian official warns there are many problems yet to be resolved and many people still displaced.

It wasn’t very long ago that Somalia was called the world’s worst humanitarian crisis. Conflict, prolonged drought and famine were to blame. Things are somewhat better now.

U.N. Humanitarian Coordinator for Somalia Mark Bowden said the number of people considered “in crisis” has dropped by 16 percent from a high of more than two and a half million.

“I think there have been improvements over the last six months or so. But we still have about 2.1 million people in Somalia who are in critical need of assistance. And many of these are in areas that are still under al Shabab control. Their situation has been made worse to some extent by fears of insecurity. So we’ve also seen recently people moving towards Ethiopia to avoid conflict,” he said.

The al Shabab militant group has been hard-pressed by military offensives launched by U.N. and government forces, as well as by Kenya. The group had once controlled nearly all of the capital Mogadishu. That caused hundreds of thousands of people to resettle in the Afgooye corridor outside of the city. But many have now returned.

Bowden said, “In Mogadishu, there’s a very large-scale problem of people who had been displaced, who were displaced by the famine last year and also people who’ve returned to Mogadishu. So there are 340,000 people just in Mogadishu living in very, very poor conditions, which we also need to address. So there are still many sizable humanitarian challenges in Somalia at the moment.”

The coastal parts of Somalia were badly affected by the drought and the World Food Program is providing assistance there. Also, while the famine is now a very bad memory, Bowden warned it could happen again.

“Somalia has always been a trading economy and the famine last year was caused by a combination of drought and very high levels of inflation. And if you get that combination again there would still be very significant problems. But one of the things that all agencies are looking at now is how we can better strengthen the resilience of the population. Make them better able to withstand shocks. Reestablish their access to livelihoods and also help them to reestablish their own family security in terms of stores of food and restocking their animals,” he said.

Humanitarian agencies are gearing up for an emergency response that may be needed once an assault is launched on the al-Shabab stronghold of Kismayo. The port city provides the group with much revenue.

“We certainly have contingency plans to address needs in Kismayo. Unfortunately at the moment there are very few humanitarian organizations still able to work in Kismayo and under difficult conditions. So we are ready to provide support as soon as we have improved access or, if people leave, to provide them where they need it,” Bowden said.

The U.N. Humanitarian Coordinator for Somalia added he expects President Hassan Sheikh Mahamud to make humanitarian issues a priority.

“I actually do know the president already,” he said, “I’ve worked with him in the past and I know that he is someone who will respect humanitarian principles and has a great commitment to developing his country as a nation and supporting his people.

One million Somalis are still living as refugees in the region with more than half in Kenya. U.N. agencies have asked for over one billion dollars this year to meet Somalia’s humanitarian needs. So far, only about half has been donated.

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