The ongoing civil war in Somalia and the worst drought to affect the Horn of Africa in six decades has resulted in an estimated 12 million people whose lives are threatened [GALLO/GETTY]
The world had an opportunity to save thousands of lives that are being lost in parts of Somalia due to the famine, if only the donor community had paid attention to the early warning systems that predicted it eight months ago.
"The situation would not have been this bad if there was emergency response for prevention, despite the conflicts in the country," said Anna Ridout, Oxfam's spokesperson.
The United Nations declared a famine in south Somalia on July 20, following the two year drought in the country, and the high child mortality rate due to the lack of food in the region.
According to the UN, the southern part of the country hosts 310,000 acutely malnourished children at the moment. At the same time, nearly half of the population in Somalia is threatened with the famine. In some regions, at least six out of 10,000 children under the age of five die daily.
The death rate is three times higher than what the UN Children's Fund defines in a famine, which is two people per 10,000 per day.
According to Oxfam, the UN announcement, which is the first one in the region this century, should be a wake-up call to the rest of the world.
"There has been a catastrophic breakdown of the world's collective responsibility to act. 3,500 people a day are fleeing Somalia and arriving in parts of Ethiopia and Kenya that are suffering one of the driest years in six decades. Food, water and emergency aid are desperately needed. By the time the UN calls it a famine it is already a signal of large scale loss of life," Oxfam said.
The organisation said that emergency aid was vital now to avoid people dying in massive numbers.
"Whenever there is an indicator of such a disaster, we must not only sit and wait for the emergency response. We can conveniently invest the funds by putting irrigation systems in place, vaccinating people, especially children, against anticipated diseases, and creating proper infrastructure to be used in case there is need for food supply," said Ridout.
Drought made worse
Speaking from the Dadaab refugee camp in Kenya, Ridout said that refugees arrive daily and in huge numbers from Somalia. Nearly all the children are malnourished and women are weak and wasted after trekking for days in search of water, food and a chance to live.
"They tell of horrible experiences of children who died along the way, and even adults who drop along the way because they cannot make it to refugee camps, mostly in Kenya or Ethiopia"
Anne Ridout, OXFAM spokesperson
"They tell of horrible experiences of children who died along the way, and even adults who drop along the way because they cannot make it to refugee camps, mostly in Kenya or Ethiopia," she said.
The most affected areas in south Somalia include the Lower Shabelle, Middle and Lower Juba, Bay, Bakool, Benadir, Gedo and Hiraan.
The effects of the drought were made worse by the Al Shabaab militia group, which had blocked donor agencies from operating within its territories in 2009 - now the famine zones.
"We are praying that the October rains expected in the East African region do not fail. Or else, we are likely to have a crisis in the area due to the looming drought," said Ridout.
However, despite the drought in northern parts of Kenya, Somali refugees keep arriving at various refugee camps on a daily basis. In June alone, 68,000 Somalis arrived in Kenya and 54,000 in Ethiopia searching for food and livelihood. At the moment, UN records indicate that 1,700 and 1,300 Somalis are arriving daily in Ethiopia and Kenya respectively.
According to Mark Bowden, the UN Humanitarian Coordinator for Somalia, 300 million dollars is required to scale up the emergency response for the 3.7 million people in need in the next two months.
One of the biggest setbacks for food aid distribution has been Al Shabaab. However, the extremist group recently lifted its ban on international aid agencies.
"We have security advisors on the ground. But most important, humanitarian organisations in the country are already working closely with local community-based organisations to access people in need," said Bowden.
"We are also involved in dialogue (not negotiation) with all community-based organisations, including groups like Al Shabaab, to ensure that there is cooperation for the aid to reach those who need it," he added.
However, despite the challenges, humanitarian agencies have already put in place response mechanisms. In an effort to reach more children with life-saving interventions, the UN and its partners have scaled up emergency nutrition, water and sanitation, and immunisation efforts to combat malnutrition and reduce disease.
"We have already started airlifting urgently-needed medical, nutrition and water supplies into the worst-affected areas," said Bowden.
Compared to previous famines, the current situation in Somalia compares or exceeds those reported during recent years in Niger (2005), Ethiopia (2001), Sudan (1998) and Somalia (1992). However, this is the most severe food security crisis in Africa since the 1991/92 Somalia famine, according to the UN Between January and June this year, 300,000 people in Mogadishu were given food assistance by humanitarian agencies on a monthly basis. Approximately 100,000 malnourished children were treated through some 418 nutrition centres in south Somalia from January to May 2011.
The UN further reports that 93,000 people received shelter, especially in Mogadishu, where the majority of those displaced by the drought fled to from other parts of the country.
The current crisis in Somalia is expected to have an increasingly devastating effect on other countries in the region. However, generally, the Horn of Africa has 11.5 million people in crisis, including the 3.7 million in Somalia.
A version of this article was first published on Inter Press Service.