News / Africa

Somalia Famine Spreads to New Areas

A malnourished refugee from Somalia at a field hospital of the International Rescue Committee, IRC, in Dadaab, Kenya, Wednesday, Aug. 3, 2011.
A malnourished refugee from Somalia at a field hospital of the International Rescue Committee, IRC, in Dadaab, Kenya, Wednesday, Aug. 3, 2011.

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Gabe Joselow

The United Nations says three more areas of Somalia have now slipped into famine.  The famine is expected to spread further unless there is immediate intervention.

The U.N.'s food security analysis unit and a famine warning project known as FEWS-NET say the famine in southern Somalia is growing worse.

Definition of Famine:

The word famine is a term that is not used lightly by humanitarian organizations. The United Nations describes a crisis as a famine only when the following conditions are met:

  • Malnutrition rates exceed 30 percent
  • More than two people per 10,000 people are dying each day
  • Severe lack of food access for large population

Current Famine:

    Almost half of Somalia's population, 3.7 million people, are affected by the current crisis with malnutrition rates in southern Somalia the highest in the world, surpassing 50 percent in some areas. The United Nations says it is likely that tens of thousands have already have died, the majority of those being children.

    The drought that has led to the current famine in parts of Somalia has also affected people in Kenya and Ethiopia.

    Previous Famines in the Horn of Africa:

  • Somalia 1991-1992
  • Ethiopia 1984-1985
  • Ethiopia 1974

New data shows more people are dying and suffering from acute malnutrition in areas of the Middle Shabelle region, as well as among the displaced people of Mogadishu and the Afgoye corridor, to the west of the capital.

Until now, famine conditions had been detected in only two areas, Lower Shabelle and Bakool in south central Somalia.

The chief technical advisor for the U.N. food security unit for Somalia, Grainne Moloney, says conditions in these displaced communities are especially "depressing."

"It's a hugely vulnerable group who have already been displaced from their homes and were reliant on humanitarian assistance, and of course with the restrictions in access and the restrictions in funding, did not get that assistance," said Moloney.  "About three years ago the malnutrition rate was about 12 percent there and to see that it's now 40 percent is very disheartening."

Famine is a technical designation that means at least 30 percent of the population is malnourished, households are lacking access to food and that there have been deaths from hunger.

There are no solid figures on the number of deaths per day, but it is estimated to be in the hundreds.

The U.N. has appealed for more than $1 billion to address the crisis and has so far raised about 40 percent of the money it has requested.

Maloney says more assistance is needed immediately.

"There need to be massive interventions now to the 2.8 million people in the south that need assistance and that needs to include food, nutrition, water, health and agriculture inputs.  They need everything right now and they need it now, they cannot afford to wait," Moloney added.

Maloney says there is some hope for Mogadishu, where displaced people are within the reach of humanitarian organizations who are expanding their efforts on the ground.

"I think the conditions in Mogadishu could certainly be reversed and I know a lot of the agencies on the ground are really stepping up on their interventions, so I'm sure that is one of the areas we can confidently say where the situation will improve," Moloney noted.

The crisis in Somalia was caused by a severe cycle of drought, which some say is the worst in 60 years.  But it was made worse by the lack of a functioning central government and restrictions on aid enforced by the al-Qaida-linked militant group al-Shabab.

The U.N. expects famine to spread to other regions of southern Somalia within the next four to six weeks and to last at least until December.

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