For the first time in 19 years, the UN declared that a famine has engulfed several regions of Somalia, the drought-stricken country from which hundreds of thousands of refugees are fleeing. An estimated 11 million people are in desperate need of food assistance. In southern Somalia, according to the UN, over 300,000 people are suffering from acute malnutrition. But cumbersome legislative hurdles, created in response to Somalia’s turbulent political situation, are making it difficult for the United States to offer aid.
The last time the UN declared a famine in the region was in 1984-85, when 1 million people died in Ethiopia. According to the Guardian, a famine is technically defined as:
“A mortality rate of more than two people per 10,000 per day; acute malnutrition reaching more than 30%; water consumption becoming less than four litres a day; and intake of kilocalories of 1,500 a day compared with the recommended 2,100 a day.”
The refugees who are fleeing to camps in Kenya and Ethiopia are arriving with malnutrition, which is proving especially deadly for small children. The camps are ill-equipped to handle the volume of people who need their help, in part because aid has been slow in coming. In parts of Somalia, 1 in 10 children are at risk of starving to death. Oxfam has accused several European countries (France, Italy and Denmark) of “willful neglect” with regard to the crisis.
If we don’t act now, famine will spread to all eight regions of southern Somalia within two months, due to poor harvests and infectious disease outbreaks,” said Mark Bowden, the humanitarian coordinator for Somalia. ”We still do not have all the resources for food, clean water, shelter and health services to save the lives of hundreds of thousands of Somalis in desperate need.”
The United States has legislative and bureaucratic hurdles to overcome before aid can be sent. In 2009, Somalia’s militant Islamic governing group, al-Shabaab, banned foreign aid groups from the country. Now they have reversed the ban, showing just how severe the crisis is. Many US-funded groups are eager to return to Somalia, but they are still blocked by legal restrictions against aid to the country.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said that she would “test” whether al-Shabaab is ready to receive help for its citizens, but with famine conditions, assistance can’t come quickly enough. A humanitarian crisis is clearly looming, and Somalia, as well as its neighboring countries, need all the help they can get.
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Photo from expertinfantry via flickr.