(Updates with U.N. global humanitarian appeal for 2012, comments from U.N. aid chief)
NAIROBI (AlertNet) – Increased fighting in Somalia could worsen famine there again next year, a senior U.N. official said on Tuesday, while appealing for a record $1.5 billion for the world’s largest humanitarian crisis.
A deadly combination of war and drought has left the chaotic nation at the epicentre of a hunger crisis affecting 13 million people across the Horn of Africa. Tens of thousands of Somalis have died from famine, which was declared in July.
Despite a massive scaling-up of aid and some relief from seasonal rains, a quarter of a million Somalis are still judged to be in a famine situation.
“We are literally on a knife-edge this year,” Mark Bowden, the U.N. humanitarian coordinator for Somalia, told reporters. “If we don’t sustain our operations, I think we could see serious problems develop - the areas that have recovered perhaps moving back into famine-like conditions.”
Somalia remains “the world’s most complex and acute crisis”, Bowden said, with four million people – just over half the population – in need of emergency assistance.
Recent incursions by Kenya and Ethiopia into Somalia in pursuit of al Qaeda-affiliated al Shabaab rebels are making it harder to get aid to people in need.
Kenyan troops crossed into Somalia almost two months ago after a wave of kidnappings and cross-border raids it blamed on the Islamist insurgents.
Its forces have become bogged down by heavy rains. But these are now ending, making a new offensive more likely, according to one unnamed official.
“The conflict that is beginning to take place in the south-west of Somalia and in parts of Mogadishu may have a negative impact on our ability to meet the needs of the people,” Kiki Gbeho, head of the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) for Somalia, said in an interview.
“If the conflict drags out - if we start seeing this thing going to six months, to nine months - then we really have a problem.”
Gbeho said al Shabaab has been attacking convoys and people on the road in areas where the Kenyan military are active, suspecting them of sympathising with the Kenyans.
U.N. AGENCIES BANNED FROM SOUTH
Access will continue to be the main challenge in delivering aid. Three-quarters of those in need live in southern Somalia, which is largely controlled by al Shabaab.
The Islamists have banned several key agencies - including the U.N. World Food Programme, the U.N. refugee agency (UNHCR), the U.N. children’s fund (UNICEF) and the World Health Organization - from operating in their territory.
That has pushed the United Nations to channel emergency relief through local organisations on the ground, often distributing cash vouchers instead of food aid.
“Every year our biggest challenge has been access, but every year we have found a way around it,” Gbeho told AlertNet. “The trick is not to make too much noise about it and people will find a way.”
She said people are likely to try to move into areas where aid is available.
In 2011, 300,000 Somalis fled as refugees into neighbouring Kenya and Ethiopia, severely straining overcrowded camps there. Another 1.4 million are internally displaced within Somalia.
Both U.N. officials said they have learned a lesson from this year, when famine was declared and they did not have sufficient funds to respond.
“That led us into a far more difficult and slower response than was needed,” said Bowden, calling on donors to “frontload” the 2012 Consolidated Appeals Process (CAP), which is the main coordination tool used by aid agencies to present proposed projects to donors in one appeal.
The CAP for Somalia is seeking $1.5 billion for 350 humanitarian projects, to be implemented by 148 U.N. agencies and non-governmental organisations in 2012. Last year's appeal for $1 billion was 80 percent funded.
2012 GLOBAL NEEDS STAY HIGH
In Geneva, U.N. Emergency Relief Coordinator Valerie Amos said that while the famine has eased a notch in three areas of Somalia, "the situation remains fragile, and aid organisations will only be able to sustain these improvements if the current level of assistance is maintained".
She added that donors' generosity has enabled tens of thousands of lives to be saved over the past four months in the Horn of Africa, but financial requirements for the region will be 20 percent higher in 2012 than for 2011.
On behalf of international humanitarian organisations, Amos called for $7.7 billion to help 51 million people in 16 countries next year: Afghanistan, Central African Republic, Chad, Côte d’Ivoire, Democratic Republic of Congo, Djibouti, Haiti, Kenya, Niger, the Palestinian territories, Philippines, Somalia, South Sudan, Sudan, Yemen and Zimbabwe.
The amount requested is slightly larger than the latest revised total of the appeals for the same countries in 2011 of which $3.6 billion has yet to be met, she noted.
"This is a time of pressure on aid budgets," said the U.N. aid chief, adding that she has asked U.N. member states "to make the extraordinary political effort necessary to raise the resources needed to help people".
"It is a significant challenge and we need to work together to rise and meet that challenge," she concluded.
(Additional reporting by Megan Rowling)