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UN to Open New Routes to Somalia's Famine-Stricken Areas

Abdihakin Omar 3, a malnourished child from southern Somalia lies on the floor in Banadir hospital in Mogadishu, Somalia, July 21, 2011

The United Nations World Food Program says it will soon open new routes to famine-stricken parts of Somalia where the presence of militants has made it hard to reach starving people.

Executive Director Josette Sheeran said Thursday that the WFP is preparing to open new land and air routes into what she called the "core of the famine zone."

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

Sheeran, speaking from Somalia's capital, Mogadishu, said the agency aims to establish operating conditions that will ensure safe conditions for aid workers in the region.

The U.N. this week declared a famine in southern Somalia's Bakool and Lower Shabelle regions, both strongholds of the al-Qaida-linked militant group al-Shabab.

Al-Shabab recently lifted a ban on foreign aid agencies. But relief groups say personnel must still keep a low profile to avoid being targeted by the militants, whose members sometimes demand payments and seize deliveries.

The United Nations says nearly half of Somalia's population - 3.7 million people - is in crisis.

The world body estimates that tens of thousands of Somalis have already died of malnutrition. And it warns a rapid increase in aid is needed to prevent the widespread loss of life.

Overall, the Horn of Africa is experiencing the worst drought in six decades. The U.N. has said more than 11 million people are in need of food aid.