As warnings grow that famine could engulf all of southern Somalia, the relief efforts needed to ease the crisis are being hampered by escalating conflict and restrictions by rebels on aid groups.
The UN last month declared famine in southern Bakool and Lower Shabelle regions in the south of Somalia because of the prolonged drought in the Horn of Africa region.
This week, UN humanitarian chief Valerie Amos warned that famine could spread to five or six regions in Somalia “if we are not able to really handle it now.”
Despite international calls for action and pledges of cash, aid workers say that they face a tough challenge to avoid a looming spread of famine.
“The question is whether donors are able to act as urgently and convert money into life-saving action,” Oxfam spokeswoman Elise Ford said. “The international community is failing to keep pace with a crisis that is spiraling out of control.”
The extreme drought is affecting over 12 million people across the Horn of Africa, but the escalation into famine in southern Somalia is blamed on decades of conflict and a two-year aid restriction by the Islamist al-Shabaab insurgents.
Renewed bouts of heavy fighting that broke out last week between the African Union-backed Somali government forces and the al Qaeda-inspired al-Shabaab rebels in Mogadishu are also worsening the crisis.
“The current conflict will cause more civilian casualties and further displacements,” the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs warned in a statement.
Up to 1,000 people fleeing drought arrive every day at the conflict-ridden Somali capital in a desperate search for food, medicine and water.
Torrential rains around the capital have added to the misery of some 100,000 new arrivals with limited shelter and weakened by hunger, the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) said.
“Our ability to deliver much needed aid is being hampered by the ongoing fighting in the Somali capital,” the UNHCR said, adding that its workers are forced to travel in heavily armored vehicles.
Restrictions in southern Somalia on aid workers are amongst the “most prohibitive in the world,” a recent UN monitoring report on Somalia said.
It named militia groups — and especially al-Shabaab — as the “greatest obstacle” to humanitarian assistance.
Tens of thousands of Somalis have already died, the UN warns, while about 1.25 million children in southern Somalia need “life saving interventions.” Nevertheless, some aid is getting through, with about a dozen foreign aid organizations allowed by al-Shabaab to operate inside their zones of control, but with limited scope.
The International Committee of the Red Cross said on Monday it had distributed food to 162,000 people in south and central Somalia.
Meanwhile, the US said on Tuesday it would support relief work in areas of Somalia held by al-Shabaab.
US officials said they were maintaining sanctions against the militia, which controls some of the worst hit parts of southern Somalia, but would fund reputable groups that take the risk to bring food into al-Shabaab territory.
US Department of State spokesman Mark Toner said US agencies were now “authorized to provide grants and contracts” to such non-governmental groups, which would not face prosecution if relief efforts “accidentally benefit” al-Shabaab.
The US imposed sanctions on the Shebab in 2008 that make it a crime to provide any support to the militia, which has emerged as a major force in a country that has lacked a functioning government for two decades.