Somalia's main rainy season has been below average, initial findings show, but the country is unlikely to slip back into famine this year, the United Nations said on Wednesday.
In 2011, Somalia was hit by famine caused by several consecutive failed rainy seasons, conflict and a ban on agencies delivering food aid in rebel-held territory. The famine ended in January, thanks to better rains, a bumper harvest and increased humanitarian assistance.
The number of Somalis in urgent need of aid has fallen from four million at the peak of the crisis to 2.5 million today.
"We don't have a very great, promising harvest in the coming season because of rainfall performance. However we don't have total failure as it was last year," said Tamara Nanitashvili, food security technical manager for the Food Security and Nutrition Analysis Unit (FSNAU) in Somalia, which is managed by the U.N. Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO).
The long rains, which began in April, started a couple of weeks late in some parts of the country and rainfall distribution has been erratic, hampering crop growth.
"The mitigating factor is (that) the previous season's harvest, which was collected in January, was good. There is still (food) stock availability among the population," Nanitashvili said.
Cereal prices are 40 to 70 percent lower nationwide than at the peak of the famine last year. In the south, which was hardest hit, they have fallen by 200 percent.
Livestock are healthy and fetching good prices. Exports in the first three months of this year were 42 percent higher than in the same period last year.
ONE IN FIVE CHILDREN MALNOURISHED
Despite the improvements, Somalia is still in crisis, with 320,000 children under five suffering malnutrition, or 22 percent of this age group. This figure is still far above the World Health Organization's crisis threshold of 15 percent.
But the number of under fives suffering from severe acute malnutrition - which leads to death without therapeutic feeding - has halved from the peak of the famine to 98,000.
These gains could easily be reversed with the return of drought conditions, as the majority of Somalis are farmers and livestock herders, or if conflict worsens in the war-torn Horn of Africa nation.
Uncertainty remains because of the ongoing war, which disrupts trade and pushes up food prices. During last year's famine, many people simply could not afford the limited cereals that were on the market.
The south of the country is at the epicentre of the ongoing crisis, and home to 73 percent of the 2.5 million people still in need.
It is largely under the control of al Shabaab Islamic militants, who have been fighting a five-year campaign to topple Somalia's Western-backed government.
In the south, al Shabaab is being squeezed by Kenyan and Ethiopian troops, which have launched incursions inside Somalia in support of the beleaguered government.
The United Nations classifies the capital, Mogadishu, and the southern port city of Kismayo as being in a food emergency phase, one category below famine, because of the conflict.
Kismayo is the remaining stronghold of al Shabaab after the insurgents retreated from the capital last August. Kenyan forces have said they plan to take the port city from the rebels.
Last week, African Union troops seized Afgoye , a rebel stronghold and strategic junction town, 30km outside Mogadishu.
NO QUICK RECOVERY
Even in a good year, Somalia does not grow enough of its staple crops, maize and sorghum, to feed its people. It relies on food aid and commercial trade to fill the gap.
Al Shabaab banned the distribution of food aid in its areas in 2010, which has provided about 40 percent of Somalia's cereals over the last decade, Nanitashvili said.
Many of the most vulnerable families are cattle farmers who lost virtually all their animals during the drought. Without them, parents are unable to give their children milk, which is critical for staving off malnutrition.
"They cannot recover all their herds in one or two seasons," said Nanitashvili. "They still struggle to get access to food."