Situation Report

Hope grew for hard-pressed Somalis in the capital, Mogadishu, as the Islamist militant group al-Shabab, peacefully left the city on Aug. 6, paving the way for international aid agencies to ship in food.

In what looks to be a related development, the U.S. government is preparing to announce $100 million in new famine aid, a top official said Monday.

Al-Shabab, which continues to control much of southern Somalia, has denied that a famine is taking place and has been blocking humanitarian aid and aid workers.

There have also been reports  that al-Shabaab is preventing starving Somalis from fleeing to government-controlled, areas where aid is more easily accessible, and holding them in containment camps.

On Aug. 5, reports from Mogadishu said government troops shot seven civilians  during a scramble for food aid at a refugee camp for those fleeing famine in the south of the country. Witnesses said troops first tried to steal the rations, and when refugees attempted to grab the food, the soldiers shot them. 

Definition of famine

There are three main criteria  for a famine to be officially declared by the UN:

  • At least 20 per cent of households must face extreme food shortages with limited ability to cope.
  • More than 30 per cent of the population must be suffering from acute malnutrition.
  • Two adults or four children dying of hunger each day for every group of 10,000 people.

The famine in southern Somalia has spread to five regions  of the country and claimed the lives of tens of thousands of people. The United Nations has called it the worst hunger emergency in a generation. The Bakool and Lower Shabelle regions of southern Somalia were the first to be declared famine zones on July 20  under criteria used by the UN to assess rates of death and malnutrition; Mogadishu, the nearby Afgoye corridor and the Middle Shabelle were declared famine zones on Aug. 3.

The UN began airlifting supplies  to southern Somalia at the end of July in a desperate bid to reach at least 175,000 of the 2.2 million Somalis whom aid workers have been unable to reach.

While the Muslim holy month of Ramadan has begun, Somali refugees fleeing the famine in their country say they don't have enough food  for the traditional feast that marks the breaking of the fast at the end of the day.

The Horn of Africa is suffering a devastating drought, compounded by war, neglect and spiralling food prices. About 40 per cent of its population of more than 160 million live in areas prone to extreme food shortages. Food production has not kept up with growth and many farmers lack access to machinery and fertilizers. Some areas in the region have not had such a low rainfall in 60 years, according to the international aid group Oxfam.

The World Food Program estimates that 11.5 million people in Somalia, Ethiopia, Kenya, Djibouti and Uganda  urgently need food aid and medical supplies and a total of 13 million have been affected by drought and food shortages.

The Canadian government has contributed about $22 million in humanitarian assistance  to the region this year. On July 22, International Cooperation Minister Bev Oda announced during a tour of a refugee camp in Dadaab, Kenya, that Canada would give at least $50 million more to aid agencies working in East Africa. For every dollar donated to Canadian charities  between July 6 and Sept. 16, the government will match the contribution.

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A Somali woman sits after receiving rations at a displaced camp in Mogadishu. (Mohamed Sheikh Nor/Associated Press)

Aid organizations say they have seen a spike in donations  from average Canadians and expect those numbers to increase with the beginning of Ramadan. However, aid workers say the area faces a protracted crisis and fear donations could taper off as time goes on.

Right now, the southern Somali regions of Bakool and Lower Shabelle regions are suffering from famine. The UN says it needs $300 million in the next two months to prevent the famine from spreading to all eight regions of southern Somalia, and another $1.6 billion to sustain "essential programs" in the region, but donations are just trickling in. The World Bank has promised to provide more than $500 million to help the drought victims in East Africa.

More than 130,000 Somali refugees have left the country for Ethiopia and Kenya in the first six months of 2011 — more than 50,000 of these in June alone, according to the UN. And now, with the UN unable to deliver emergency aid to large portions of Somalia, more refugees are expected to flood into the already overcrowded Kenyan camps.

Ongoing drought has killed up to 90 per cent of livestock in some regions. The drought is not expected to let up before the end of the year.

The last time conditions were this bad  was in 1992, when hundreds of thousands of Somalis starved to death.

Roadblocks: The UN has been seeking guarantees from armed groups in Somalia that they won't be attacked if they're delivering food aid. Aid groups have struggled to reach many of those affected, in part because armed groups banished them from large parts of southern Somalia starting in 2009.

With thousands of people now on the brink of starvation, Somalia's most dangerous militant group, al-Shabaab, has promised aid groups limited access to areas under their control. The al-Shabaab Mujahedeen is an armed group of mostly young adherents in Somalia with links to al-Qaeda. Shabaab means youth in Arabic. Al-Shabaab is classified as a terrorist organization in Canada, the U.S., the U.K., Australia, Sweden and Norway.

But the UN refugee agency, which has distributed aid to 90,000 people in the capital Mogadishu and in southwest Somalia in recent days, said the pledge by al-Shabaab isn't enough.

"The situation we have for humanitarian workers inside Somalia at the moment is not what we want it to be," UNHCR spokesman Adrian Edwards told reporters in Geneva. "We do have a very minimal presence, and we have regular visits into the country, but we need significantly better access than we have at the moment to address an emergency of this scale."