11 July 2011

Somalia: Rising Death Toll Feared As Drought Spreads

Photo: WFP/IRIN
Some 3.6 million people in Somalia depend on humanitarian assistance.

Nairobi — Civil society groups are rallying together to help the vulnerable as the drought ravaging Somalia spreads to hitherto unaffected areas, amid concerns that hunger-related deaths are dramatically increasing.

"We are knocking on every door to collect help; nothing is too small," Asha Sha'ur Ugas, a member of a civil society drought committee, told IRIN. "Many people have already died and many more will die if help does not arrive soon - and by soon I mean right now."

She said they were already getting reports of people who died on the way and "ones who died after they reached Mogadishu [the capital]", adding, "most of the deaths were children and very weak adults, such as the elderly, pregnant and lactating mothers".

She said civil society officials were appealing to Somalis at home and abroad to help. Ugas said in Mogadishu, school-children, market women and businesses had been donating whatever they could.

She said civil society groups were prepared to deliver relief aid to any region or area "no matter who was in control. We are prepared to go anywhere in the country if that would help the needy."

She urged agencies willing to help to use whatever means to access those in need.

"I am well aware that it is not easy accessing some of the most vulnerable areas but agencies should not shy away from using unorthodox methods to get to them," she said. "We can help, elders can help and women in those areas can also help.

"We have not seen anything like this in decades; in the past, we had droughts but those affected only some regions, this is affecting more regions than ever before."

She added that the current drought was worse than that of 1992, better known as "Caga Barar" (swollen feet), because of its scope.

"Caga Barar was mainly confined to the Bay and Bakol areas [southern Somalia]," she said. "This one has much greater reach."

Al-Shabab about-turn

Most of southern and central Somalia, where the drought is worst, is under the control of the Islamist Al-Shabab group. In the past, it banned aid agencies in areas under its control but recently announced that "both Muslim and non-Muslim agencies are welcome to help".

Warning that thousands of people could die in the absence of immediate humanitarian assistance, the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs said that 80 percent of the 476,000 malnourished children in Somalia - up from 376,000 at the start of 2011 - live in areas controlled by Al-Shabab.

One aid worker in Mogadishu said few had faith in the group's announcement.

"On the one hand they are saying agencies are welcome and on the other hand they are trying to stop desperate people leaving areas under their control, to look for help," the aid worker said.

A civil society source, who requested anonymity, said times were desperate and "we need to take them at their word if we are going to save lives. We have nothing to lose by calling their bluff... If they are genuine, then it is a win-win situation."

Ibrahim Isak Yarrow, the acting Minister of Interior of Somalia's Transitional Federal Government and a member of a ministerial drought committee, said the situation was extremely bad and "will probably get worse".

Noting that more and more people displaced by the drought were coming to Mogadishu, Yarrow said: "Our estimates are [that] in the last few days, between 5,500 and 6,000 families [33,000 and 36,000 people] have arrived."

He said the number of new arrivals was expected to reach 10,000 families [60,000 people] by month-end. The government has appealed for assistance. "We are working on an appeal document right now."

A local journalist in the north of Mogadishu told IRIN most of the earlier drought-displaced were from southern Somalia, "but we are seeing a new influx from the central regions".

Many of the new arrivals were in a terrible state. "Every family seems to have lost a loved on the trek to the city or immediately upon arrival."

He said the drought-displaced was settling in abandoned buildings across the city while others were building temporary shelters in open fields.

The trouble, he said, was that the new arrivals were settling sometimes in contested areas of the city, "making it difficult to reach them".

[ This report does not necessarily reflect the views of the United Nations ]

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