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UN Set to Begin Food Airlift to Horn of Africa

Somali prime minister Abdiwali Mohamed Ali (R) visits the largest displaced persons camp in Mogadishu, to assess the scale of drought victims flooding into the capital of Mogadishu, July 26, 2011

The U.N. World Food Program is due to begin an emergency airlift Tuesday of food to the drought-stricken Horn of Africa.

The WFP said Monday that planes will carry food to the Somali capital of Mogadishu, eastern Ethiopia, and northern Kenya, near the border with Somalia.

WFP Executive Director Josette Sheeran said this will be the first airlift of food since the U.N. declared a famine in two parts of Somalia last week.

The United Nations says "massive" action is needed to save millions of people living in the Horn of Africa from starvation. The U.S. Agency for International Development says more than 11 million people are now in need of emergency aid to survive.

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

The U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization hosted an emergency meeting on the drought Monday in Rome.

A donors' conference will be held Wednesday in Kenya's capital, Nairobi. The U.N. is seeking pledges of $1.6 billion to help the millions of malnourished people - many of them children.

In Somalia, described as the "epicenter of the famine," Sheeran said about one-third of the population is facing starvation. USAID reports more than 600,000 Somalis have fled to neighboring countries.

Sheeran also said that in Somalia there are soaring levels of malnutrition. She described desperate mothers forced to abandon their children along roadsides as they traveled to refugee camps in neighboring Kenya.

Access to southern Somalia has been hampered by the al-Qaida-linked militant group al-Shabab, which controls much of the region.

The group has rejected the U.N. declaration of famine in parts of Somalia, and has banned many aid groups from operating in territory it controls.

Some information for this report was provided by AP and AFP.