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Somalia's famine sees some relief, but thousands still face 'imminent starvation'

Mogadishu, Somalia. September 5, 2011. Images at Banadir Hospital where many people, mostly young children, are being treated for severe malnutrition, measels, and other diseases.

Peter Power/The Globe and Mail/Peter Power/The Globe and Mail

Massive global support for Somalia's famine victims has helped to save thousands of lives, yet nearly 250,000 people are still facing imminent death by starvation, the United Nations says.

The new UN report is the first sign of a slow reversal in the tide of tragic news from Somalia, where famine was declared in July. Three regions of Somalia are no longer considered to be famine zones, although they remain serious emergencies, the UN says. Three other Somali regions are still considered to be in famine.

The death rate has declined in many parts of Somalia over the past two months, according to the report on Friday by a food security research unit at the United Nations. In the Middle and Lower Juba region of southern Somalia, for example, the rate of acute malnutrition has declined from about 35 per cent in August to about 29 per cent in October.

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The massive increase in humanitarian aid, sent to Somalia from all over the world, is one of the main reasons for the improvement, the report says. More than $800-million has been raised for famine relief efforts in Somalia this year.

Yet the UN warns against any complacency. "Death rates, especially for young children, remain extremely high," the report said. "Nearly 250,000 people continue to face imminent starvation…. Tens of thousands of people have died since April and deaths are likely to continue over the coming months."

In fact, despite the slight improvement, the famine in Somalia remains "the worst in the world" and many regions are still near or above the famine threshold, the report said. Any significant disruption in the flow of humanitarian aid would revive the famine, it said.

Relief agencies welcomed the signs of improvement, but they cautioned that they expect continued outbreaks of measles, cholera and malaria in Somalia during the current rainy season. Four million people still need life-saving assistance, they said.

"Let's make no mistake about this situation, children's lives are still in imminent danger," said Sikander Khan, the representative to Somalia of UNICEF, the UN children's fund.

"The combination of malnutrition, killer diseases and escalating conflict continues to make it a matter of life and death for tens of thousands of children with no respite for them for the majority of 2012," he said.

Kenya's military invasion of southern Somalia, which began a month ago, is the latest threat to the humanitarian aid effort. The Kenyan military operation is jeopardizing the supply of aid to tens of thousands of Somali famine victims, Oxfam warned.

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In the Lower and Middle Juba region, for example, aid to 27,000 people has been suspended because of the Kenyan invasion, and a further 58,000 have been badly affected because the military campaign has delayed the distribution of seeds and tools in the planting season, Oxfam said in a statement on Friday.

Many people are already preparing to flee from towns in southern Somalia because of the invasion, it said. "Attempts to solve the crisis through military action are likely to lead to further suffering for civilians, and further reduce access for aid agencies."

Sonia Zambakides, head of Save the Children's emergency response in Somalia, said children are still dying "at a frightening rate" despite the latest improvement. "The aid we're distributing is making a difference, but this crisis is nowhere near over, and any let up in the response on the back of this news could cost the lives of thousands of children."

The death rate has declined in many parts of Somalia over the past two months, according to the report today by a food security research unit at the United Nations. In the Middle and Lower Juba region of southern Somalia, for example, the rate of acute malnutrition has declined from about 35 per cent in August to about 29 per cent in October.

The massive increase in humanitarian aid, sent to Somalia from all over the world, is one of the main reasons for the improvement, the report says.

Yet it warns against any complacency. "Death rates, especially for young children, remain extremely high," the report said. "Nearly 250,000 people continue to face imminent starvation…. Tens of thousands of people have died since April and deaths are likely to continue over the coming months."

Story continues below advertisement

In fact, despite the slight improvement, the famine in Somalia remains "the worst in the world" and many regions are still near or above the famine threshold, the report said. Any significant disruption in the flow of humanitarian aid would revive the famine, it said.

Relief agencies welcomed the signs of improvement, but they cautioned that they expect continued outbreaks of measles, cholera and malaria in Somalia during the current rainy season. Four million people still need life-saving assistance, they said.

"Let's make no mistake about this situation, children's lives are still in imminent danger," said Sikander Khan, the representative to Somalia of UNICEF, the UN children's fund.

"The combination of malnutrition, killer diseases and escalating conflict continues to make it a matter of life and death for tens of thousands of children with no respite for them for the majority of 2012," he said.

Kenya's military invasion of southern Somalia, which began a month ago, is the latest threat to the humanitarian aid effort. The Kenyan invasion is jeopardizing the supply of aid to tens of thousands of Somali famine victims, Oxfam warned today.

In the Lower and Middle Juba region, for example, aid to 27,000 people has been suspended because of the Kenyan invasion, and a further 58,000 have been badly affected because the invasion has delayed the distribution of seeds and tools in the planting season, Oxfam said.

"Attempts to solve the crisis through military action are likely to lead to further suffering for civilians, and further reduce access for aid agencies," Oxfam said in a statement today.

Many people are preparing to flee from towns in southern Somalia, it said. "Somalis are already going through the most serious food crisis in decades, but the internationally-backed incursion is causing even more suffering for ordinary people," said Senait Gebregziabher, Oxfam's country director for Somalia.

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About the Author
Africa Bureau Chief

Geoffrey York is The Globe and Mail's Africa correspondent.He has been a foreign correspondent for the newspaper since 1994, including seven years as the Moscow Bureau Chief and seven years as the Beijing Bureau Chief.He is a veteran war correspondent who has covered war zones since 1992 in places such as Somalia, Sudan, Chechnya, Iraq and Afghanistan. More

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