Refugees flee famine in Somalia; aid groups struggle to meet huge needs

Months of a severe drought in East Africa have led to famine in two regions in Southern Somalia. According to the UN's definition, famines can only be declared under the following conditions:

At least 20 per cent of households in an area face extreme food shortages with a limited ability to cope; acute malnutrition rates exceed 30 per cent; and the death rate exceeds two persons per day per 10,000 persons.

These horrific conditions exist in Somalia's Bakool and Lower Shabelle regions. Much of the rest of the country, as well as neighboring parts of Ethiopia and Kenya, are experiencing food emergencies. This BBC story includes a map of the affected area and a few numbers: 10.7 million people are in need of humanitarian assistance, and 25% of Somalia's 7.5 million population are displaced.

Aid groups face multiple challenges in their efforts to feed so many malnourished and starving people.

Everett Rosenfeld at TIME's Global Spin blog explains the challenges the World Food Programme faces in delivering the food it's secured for Somali people:

In Mogadishu alone, the WFP feeds over 300,000 people each day, but many of the areas in the southern part of the country may never be reachable for aid workers as the Islamist group Al-Shabaab has largely barred humanitarian efforts for the past year and a half.

"We are seeing that there are windows of opportunity to return to areas that have been inaccessible to us," [WFP spokesperson Challiss] McDonough told TIME. "It's such a patchy situation on the ground, and such a complex place with clan dynamics that the assistance opportunities will vary from place to place."

Anti-Western sentiment doesn't simply threaten aid distribution in Al-Shabaab controlled areas, but in the capital Mogadishu as well. The WFP has had to adjust its standard program of providing month-long rations in favor of daily soup kitchen-style "wet feeding centers," McDonough said. "Sometimes it would be dangerous for people to take food home: someone may try to steal it, or they may even be punished for getting it." But with these feeding centers and more specialized "targeted supplementary feeding" centers (which provide nutrition supplements intended for malnourished children and pregnant and breastfeeding mothers) the WFP is able to reach much of the needy.

Then there's the question of whether WFP will be able to secure enough food to meet the substantial need for the region. It estimates that it's $300 million short, and donations coming in now - many prompted by the official famine declaration - take at least two months (and sometimes four or six) to turn donations into direct aid. Rosenfeld writes that McDonough "wishes that the world had listened when the WFP and other agencies first sounded the alarm after the drought became obviously severe several months ago."

On the plus side, Rosenfeld reports that planning by Kenya's government and the UN has led to efficient handling of the influx of Somali refugees who've made their way to the Dadaab refugee camps. According to another spokesperson, the estimated 400,000 refugees are receiving sufficient food supplies, and those who can't be housed in the camps have mats and shelter-building materials to tide them over until better accommodations are ready. NPR's Ofeibea Quist-Arcton report on conditions in the camps and the treacherous trip the refugees - 80% of them women and children - took to get there.

On NPR's Shots blog, Whitney Blair Wyckoff takes a closer look at the food the WFP is airlifting into Mogadishu. Yesterday's shipment, the first since famine was declared, features Plumpy'Sup, a peanut-based paste that supplies protein, vitamins, and minerals in packets of around 500 calories each. The packets don't require refrigeration, have a long shelf life, and can be eaten straight out of the pouch.

Somalis in Minnesota (a community numbering an estimated 25,000) are raising money to help, and have reportedly collected $100,000 for the American Refugee Committee.

This is an enormous crisis that will require extensive aid for many months to come. The US government has pledged an additional $28 million, on top of the $431 million it has given for emergency assistance in the area already this year.

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I hope the PSA is not inappropriate.

People in the UK can donate through the DEC, an organisation that pools funds and coordinates responses from 14 UK charities. Remember to gift-aid if you pay income tax.

Or you can donate through charity shops. Donations of goods in kind and volunteer labour are always needed, especially during big appeals like this. If you're not sure what would be welcome, try the charities' websites or ask to talk to store managers.

By stripey_cat (not verified) on 30 Jul 2011 #permalink