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Aid Agencies Working to Stave Off Catastrophic Famine in Somalia

  • Lisa Schlein

FILE - Displaced Somali girls who fled the drought in southern Somalia stand in a queue to receive food handouts at a feeding center in a camp in Mogadishu, Somalia, Feb. 25, 2017.

Time is running out for millions of people in Somalia who are on the brink of famine, warns the United Nations. The world body is urging the international community to rapidly respond to its $825-million appeal to stave off a catastrophe in that drought-stricken and conflict-ridden country.

Six-point-two million people in Somalia — half the population — are in need of humanitarian assistance, according to the U.N. To highlight the crisis, U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, who had been visiting Kenya, made an impromptu change of plans and traveled to Somalia. There he met with President Mohamed Abdullahi Mohamed, known as Farmajo, and visited a local hospital where malnourished people are receiving treatment.

UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, addresses the media in Mogadishu, Somalia, March 7, 2017.
UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, addresses the media in Mogadishu, Somalia, March 7, 2017.

The U.N. director of information in Geneva, Alessandra Vellucci, says Guterres considers it vital that he, personally, address this life-altering crisis.

“He decided to go on an emergency visit to Mogadishu, to Somalia in order to focus on famine and cholera. He [Guterres] said in a tweet this morning, people are dying. The world must act now to stop this,” said Vellucci.

U.N. emergency relief coordinator Stephen O’Brien arrived Monday.

UN Humanitarian Chief Stephen O'Brien, right, meets with drought affected people during his visit to one of Mogadishu IDP camps in Somalia, March 6, 2017.
UN Humanitarian Chief Stephen O'Brien, right, meets with drought affected people during his visit to one of Mogadishu IDP camps in Somalia, March 6, 2017.

The United Nations reports nearly 3 million people are going hungry and need urgent life-saving relief. It warns that almost 1 million children under the age of 5 will be acutely malnourished this year, including 185,000 who are at risk of dying if they do not receive immediate medical treatment.

Over a recent two-day period, Somali officials report 110 people, many of them women and children, died from water-borne diseases as a result of the ongoing drought.

Malnourished babies are held by their mothers, both of whom fled the drought in southern Somalia, at a feeding center in a camp in Mogadishu, Somalia, Feb. 25, 2017.
Malnourished babies are held by their mothers, both of whom fled the drought in southern Somalia, at a feeding center in a camp in Mogadishu, Somalia, Feb. 25, 2017.

Jens Laerke, spokesman for the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, says there are worrying similarities in some parts of Somalia to the 2011 famine, which killed 260,000 people.

He tells VOA it is hard to predict when this growing catastrophe could turn into a full-blown famine.

“It is a creeping disaster. It creeps up on you," he said. "Day by day it gets a little bit worse. So, how much time do we have? Well, if we stopped operations right now today, people would start dying tomorrow. That is one way of looking at it. So, how much time do we have? Very little time.”

Laerke says the Somalia appeal has received $100 million in contributions and more in pledges. While that is good, he says it is not good enough as more support is urgently needed.

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