Top UN official warns of continued risk of famine in Somalia

Mark Bowden, who leads the UN relief efforts in Somalia, says many people remain in a precarious position and would need assistance on a regular basis

Heightened military action in Somalia risks jeopardising fragile gains in dealing with the humanitarian crisis in the region, a top UN relief official said on Sunday.

However, Mark Bowden, who leads the UN relief effort in the country, said the Kenyan incursion into Somalia against al-Shabaab insurgents has "not really had an impact", although Somali refugees have stopped crossing the border.

Last week, the UN refugee agency, UNHCR, expressed concerns about insecurity in and around camps hosting hundreds of thousands of Somali refugees in the Horn of Africa. Andrej Mahecic, a UNHCR spokesman, said the situation is particularly worrying in the Dadaab refugee camps in northern Kenya, where the threat of improvised explosive devices, kidnappings, vehicle hijackings and banditry remains high. Some 460,000 refugees are in the camps.

Security concerns in Nairobi have grown since hundreds of Kenyan troops crossed the border into neighbouring Somalia in October in pursuit of Islamist militants from the al-Shabaab group. Linked to al-Qaida, al-Shabaab is blamed by the authorities for a series of raids into Kenya, and kidnappings.

Besides worries about growing security threats in Kenya, NGOs have expressed concern that military operations against al-Shabaab by the Somali transitional government, backed by African Union forces, will exacerbate already difficult relief efforts. They believe that there is no military solution. The transitional government is perceived to have been imposed from outside, and the pursuit of all-out war will leave no room for dialogue with al-Shabaab.

There are concerns that areas taken by government forces have, or will become, less secure for local communities because of the activities of militias supporting government soldiers.

The UN, which is pushing for a political settlement in Somalia through its UN political office for Somalia, has been accused of jeopardising its "honest broker" status by trying to build up the credibility of the weak transitional government in the capital, Mogadishu. Bowden, however, played down concern that the UN's relief efforts had been compromised by its political arm in Somalia.

"The distinction between the UN's political and humanitarian operations is made and upheld," said Bowden in an interview in London. "Al-Shabaab makes a distinction between what I say and what is said politically. Al-Shabaab also makes distinctions on which agencies they will work with. They won't work with the World Food Programme, but will with the Food and Agriculture Organisation, which is seen as promoting self-sufficiency."

The issue of access to south and central Somalia, where al-Shabaab is strong, has vastly complicated efforts to deal with famine. The group has banned some agencies but not others, and, in some areas, banned organisations have managed to continue to work through local partners because local al-Shabaab forces have bucked the party line.

"It's still possible to work through partner organisations in humanitarian operations in parts of southern Somalia," said Bowden, who criticised some NGOs "for not engaging with the transitional government".

The UN declared famine in three zones of Somalia in July, and the UN and its partners appealed for $1.5bn to tackle the crisis. By the end of November the UN had received 80% of this amount.

Bowden said last year's aid enabled relief agencies to reduce the number of people at risk of outright famine from 750,000 to 150,000, and prevented the spread of diarrhoeal illness and other infectious diseases through chlorination of water and increased health services.

He warned, however, that many people remained in a precarious position "where the potential to turn back into famine continues to exist". Four million Somalis remain in need of assistance on a regular basis, including food aid, healthcare, and water and sanitation services.

More than 955,000 Somalis live as refugees in countries neighbouring Somalia – primarily in Kenya (520,000), Yemen (203,000) and Ethiopia (186,000). Another 1.3 million people are internally displaced.


Mark Tran

The GuardianTramp

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