Children at risk as violence in Somalia threatens aid agencies.

Children malnutrition

Halkaan ka akhri

In the troubled Horn of Africa, malnutrition is reaching critical levels as the worldwide food crisis tips impoverished families into starvation, and a breakdown in law and order threatens aid workers who are struggling to fill the hunger gap.

In Somalia, children are especially at risk, says the Canadian head of a leading international aid organization.

“We have 3,000 children in our feeding program who are acutely malnourished and as many as 500 being admitted a week,” says Marilyn McHarg, general director of Médecins Sans Frontières Canada. “But we’re losing the space to operate as there is a marked increase in abductions and killings of humanitarian workers.”

The United Nations has warned that the violence could disrupt aid operations so badly that parts of southern and central Somalia would face a disaster as severe as the 1992-93 famine in which hundreds of thousands died. Many aid groups have already suspended their programs.

“The recent killings of aid workers in Somalia appear to be a deliberate attempt to sabotage humanitarian response,” said Peter Smerdon of the World Food Program. “This is a disturbing trend, because if we cannot deliver sufficient aid we could see scenes like the ones in the early 1990s.”

And he said in a phone interview from Kenya, “90 per cent of (food aid) comes by sea, and the threat of piracy is very bad.”

The UN agency and Médecins Sans Frontières are still operating in Somalia. But five World Food Program workers and four from MSF have been killed.

Somalia has been in a catastrophic civil war since 2006, when Ethiopian troops that back a transitional government moved in to oust an Islamic movement that had taken control of Mogadishu. Since the beginning of 2007, some 8,000 people have died in fighting, and 1 million have been forced from their homes.

“There’s a huge refugee crisis, an unpopular, unstable government and ongoing violence,” said Carolyn O’Hara, senior editor of Foreign Policy magazine, which recently ranked Somalia number one in an annual index of failed states, compiled with the Fund for Peace.

“What is so tragic is that we measure the risk that states may fail – but Somalia has failed already.”

The spiralling cost of food, on top of ruined crops, has made survival a grim battle for most Somalis. In May, troops opened fire when thousands rioted in Mogadishu.

“With insecurity and drought, rising food prices are the nail in the coffin,” says Smerdon. “As of December, the forecast is that 3.5 million people will need humanitarian assistance. Unless it’s delivered there could be deaths.”

In a normally bustling market in the Somali border town of El Barde, Smerdon said, stalls have fallen silent as prices rise. The cattle-herding people who live nearby are desperate to feed their families.

“From April to June the rains failed. Families can no longer afford to buy food in the market because it has gone up so much in price. One woman shopkeeper, who had seven kids, told me her family is eating the stock. They were down to one bag of sorghum and when that goes there will be nothing.”

Destitute families that live on the edge of urban communities can no longer eke out a living at a time of escalating inflation, Smerdon added: “They used to collect grass or firewood or wash clothes for other people. Now urban dwellers are so stretched they cut back by doing those things for themselves.”

In neighbouring Ethiopia, which is embroiled in conflicts in Somalia and the Ogaden region, aid workers are able to provide food and other support. But, says McHarg, the need for help is growing apace with food prices, especially in the south.

“The rains were too little and too late. Combined with inflation, which means lower purchasing power, that has affected people’s nutritional well-being. We’re seeing more malnutrition in the south. The population is growing weak.”

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