The United Nations is set to declare famine in parts of southern Somalia, signalling to donors the need for more aid and to insurgents that the population's suffering is being taken seriously.
Mark Bowden, humanitarian coordinator for Somalia, is expected to make the announcement on Wednesday in Nairobi, based on fresh data from the food security and nutrition analysis unit for the violent Horn of Africa country, aid officials told the Reuters news agency on Tuesday.
"It will declare famine in several areas of southern Somalia," a Geneva-based aid worker said.
The world body has described the Horn of Africa drought as an emergency, one level short of a famine, citing dire levels of acute malnutrition among Somali children reaching camps in Kenya and Ethiopia.
In all, more than 10 million people are affected and need emergency help, including 2.85 million in Somalia, where one in three children is suffering from malnutrition, the UN said.
Famine is defined as a mortality rate of more than two people per 10,000 per day and muscle wasting rates of above 30 per cent in children under five years old across an entire region, according to the UN Children's Fund (UNICEF).
Futher guarantees needed from insurgents
The office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees said on Tuesday it was seeking further security guarantees from armed rebels in Somalia in order to deliver greater amounts of assistance and prevent more hungry people from becoming refugees.
Al-Shabab, an armed movement that seeks to overthrow Somalia's Transitional Federal Government and impose sharia law, controls the majority of the country, including pockets of the capital Mogadishu.
Some analysts say the insurgents are allowing aid in fear of a public backlash if they do not, and others say the rebels want to tax aid groups to fund their armed conflict.
Al-Shabab surprised aid workers two weeks ago with a pledge to allow relief agencies "with no hidden agendas" greater access to rebel-held territory.
The World Food Programme (WFP) suspended its aid operations across much of southern and central Somalia in early 2010 after al-Shabab ordered the UN agency to halt operations in areas under its control.
The WFP is seeking security guarantees to access these areas and the ability to distribute and monitor aid there, Emilia Casella, a spokeswoman, told reporters.
The UN said on Monday it had started airlifting food to rebel-held areas and that al-Shabab had abided by a pledge to allow relief workers free access.
US pressures Eritrea
With other Horn of Africa nations suffering from drought, the United States pressured Eritrea on Tuesday to reveal more about how it has been affected.
"Eritrea is a closed and an increasingly reclusive country and its government has not been particularly helpful in sharing data and information about the severity of the food shortages or the drought," said Johnnie Carson, the assistant secretary of state for African affairs.
Carson said the United States presumes Eritrea, which borders Ethiopia and Djibouti to the south, has been affected by the drought that plagues nearby Somalia.
"We urge the government of Eritrea to cooperate with the UN agencies and other international organizations to address the issue of hunger and food shortage in that country," he said.
Carson's statements reflected the tense relationship between the two governments. The United States believes Eritrea has armed al-Shabab, and US troops are stationed in Djibouti.
Starvation seen even in breadbaskets
At least 500,000 children are at risk of death in the Horn of Africa, where high food prices and the driest period in 60 years have pushed many poor families into desperate need, UNICEF has said.
One in 10 children in parts of Somalia is at risk of starving to death, the International Committee of the Red Cross said last week.
The independent aid agency, one of very few with access to Somalia's worst-hit areas, said that even in the Bay and Lower Shabelle regions, Somalia's traditional breadbaskets, nearly 11 per cent of children under five had severe acute malnutrition.
UNHCR has stepped up its work in southern Somalia, distributing aid to 90,000 people in recent days to areas including Mogadishu with another 126,000 due to receive supplies on Tuesday, Adrian Edwards, a spokesman, told a media briefing.
"We need significantly better access than we have at the moment to address an emergency of this scale," he said. "We need guarantees of safety on the one hand, the assurances that the humanitarian nature of our work is going to be respected."
"What we believe, and what we have observed, is with the massive movement of population outside of the country, some of the fighting forces have realised that they needed to allow humanitarian assistance to come in," Raouf Mazou, UNHCR deputy director for the Horn of Africa told reporters. "For how long that will last is something that we don't know."