GENEVA, Switzerland, January 5, 2010 (ENS) – Attacks on humanitarian operations and a string of threats and unacceptable demands from armed groups have made it impossible for the world’s largest food aid agency to continue feeding up to one million hungry people in southern Somalia.
This choking of the humanitarian food lifeline raises the risk of greater instability in the entire Horn of Africa region, parched by the failure of the November rains after years of drought.
In a statement today, the UN’s World Food Programme said because its humanitarian operations in southern Somalia have been under escalating attacks from armed groups, the agency will suspend food distributions in much of southern Somalia.
Two UN civilian staff members lost their lives in Somalia in 2009, the United Nations said today in a statement announcing the deaths of 28 civilian staff members and seven peacekeeping troops around the world last year.
The killings of four World Food Programme staff between August 2008 and January 2009 prompted WFP officials to seek security commitments from local administrations and armed groups in much of southern and central Somalia.
Agency spokesperson Emilia Casella told reporters in Geneva today that 95 percent of the territory where WFP operations have been disrupted was controlled by the militant group known as Al-Shabaab, or Movement of Warrior Youth.
In a “New Yorker” article December 14, 2009 John Lee Anderson identified the Shabaab as “a group of violent Islamist guerrillas” with “ties to Al Qaeda” which “has declared war on the U.N. and on Western non-governmental organizations” that distribute food aid in Somalia.
The Shabaab “has imposed its own harsh form of Sharia, or Islamic law, with punishments such as public flogging, stoning and amputation,” writes Anderson.
Staff safety is of paramount concern to WFP, the agency said today, revealing that armed groups have demanded up to $20,000 every six months to ensure the safety of UN staff. Also, the WFP has received demands to remove women from their jobs.
As a result, WFP has “temporarily” closed its offices in Wajid, Buale, Garbahare, Afmadow, Jilib and Belet Weyne in southern Somalia. Staff, food supplies and equipment have been moved to safer areas to ensure that food assistance continues to reach as many vulnerable people as possible.
Resources and relief workers are being re-deployed from southern areas in the event that people start moving away from areas where food distributions have been suspended.
Since August 2009, half the Somali population, some 3.64 million people, have been in need of outside assistance.
In its statement, WFP said the agency is “deeply concerned about rising hunger and suffering among the most vulnerable due to these unprecedented and inhumane attacks on purely humanitarian operations.”
WFP is continuing its life-saving food distributions in the rest of the country, including the capital, Mogadishu, reaching about 1.8 million people, more than two-thirds of the hungry it has been feeding.
The agency says its operation in Somalia is fully funded in the coming months to reach all the projected beneficiaries.
“WFP is an impartial, non-political humanitarian agency that has been working in partnership with the people of Somalia for more than 40 years, providing assistance to the poorest of the poor throughout Somalia’s years of conflict and before,” the agency stated.
“The recent pressures on our work from armed groups in southern Somalia are impeding our humanitarian mandate.”
Torn by factional fighting and ravaged by drought, Somalia has not had a functioning government since 1991. Even in good years, Somalia is only able to meet 40 percent of the food needs of its population through internal production, the WFP says. In the last five years, local production has averaged only about 30 percent of food needs in Somalia.
The nonprofit aid organization Oxfam says this is the sixth successive season of poor rains in Somalia, which is experiencing its worst drought in 20 years. Many parts of the northern Somaliland region had less than two millimeters of rain in November and December.
“The rains were many people’s last hope but they have failed again,” said Jeremy Loveless, Oxfam’s deputy humanitarian director back in London in December after visiting Somalia.
Loveless says that one in five Somali children is suffering from malnutrition.
WFP says it is working closely with its partners to pre-position supplies and prepare to provide assistance to any population movements either within Somalia, or across the country’s borders into neighboring countries.
In December 2009, UN Resident and Humanitarian Coordinator Mark Bowden told a news briefing in New York that Somalia is facing a humanitarian crisis with no funding so far raised or pledged for next year for food, water, sanitation, health and other vital needs and the potential that the situation could spill over into a major regional crisis for its neighbors.
“The main message that we have is that the potential humanitarian funding crisis is life threatening, it threatens a large proportion of the population,” said Bowden.
“The consequences of not addressing the situation in Somalia is that we could expect more displacement into other parts of the region putting a great deal more stress on Djibouti, Ethiopia and Kenya at a time when they can’t afford to support them either,” Bowden said.
The UN agencies say potential donors are worried about the effectiveness of aid in Somalia’s chaotic situation and fear that humanitarian supplies could fall into the hands of terrorists. To date, no funding arrangements have been concluded.
“Time is precious,” said Bowden, “so if we don’t resolve this soon, the humanitarian consequences are very, very serious indeed. Time is running out.”
In a September news briefing at UN headquarters in New York, Bowden warned of “critical shortages” in water, sanitation, health and nutrition. Somalia currently hosts the largest displaced population globally, with some 1.5 million displaced “living in conditions which are, I think, some of the worst for displaced populations in the world,” he said.
“Somalia needs to be seen as a priority case,” Bowden said. “The implications of not responding now are a future of miserable destitution but also the potential to tip the region into a far greater level of crisis through the movement of Somalia’s population out of the country if assistance isn’t provided.”
A single bright spot was contained in UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon’s message to the the UN’s International Maritime Organization in November.
“In recent years, pirates operating from Somalia have been hijacking ships in the Gulf of Aden and the Indian Ocean, and holding their crews and cargo for ransom. Thanks to the resolve of the International Maritime Organization and the United Nations Security Council, the international community has done much to discourage such acts,” Ban said.
Over 90 percent of all WFP food for Somalia is delivered by sea. Yet Ban said, “Since the start of the international naval escort system in the western Indian Ocean two years ago, not a single ship heading to Somalia with World Food Programme aid has been attacked.”
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