7 Jul 2011

UN Somalia chief calls for urgent action on drought

The head of the UN in Somalia exclusively tells Channel 4 News he is “not sure the population can survive until the end of the year” unless urgent action is taken, amid the worst drought in 20 years.

Horn of Africa crisis

Mark Bowden, the most senior UN figure in Somalia, has told Channel 4 News that he is “extremely worried” at the “desperate” plight of an estimated 12 million people affected by drought in Somalia, Ethiopia, and Kenya.

He said urgent action must be taken by international organisations to avert a crisis of massive proportions.

“I am extremely worried about the severity of the situation, and we should look at all measures, even exceptional measures, to increase the food supply to the people,” Mr Bowden said.

“It is imperative we act because I’m not sure the population can survive until the end of the year if we don’t,” he continued.

Following several seasons of failed rains and spiralling global food prices, an estimated 2.8 million people in Somalia are now in need of emergency aid.

Joe Belliveau, the operations manager for MSF in Somalia, told Channel 4 News nearly one in five children arriving at the Dadaab refugee camp on the Kenyan border is severely malnourished.

“These kids don’t really have long at all for this life,” Belliveau said.

Al-Shabaab lifts aid ban

Mr Bowden cautiously welcomed news that the Somali rebel group al-Shabaab – who control central and southern parts of the country – have decided to allow humanitarian relief into their territory.

The UN’s Designated Official for Somalia said al-Shahbaab’s statement was positive but dialogue with them must involve “guarantees” about the safety of aid workers and the proper use of humanitarian funds.

In the past, al-Shabaab – who the US designates as a terrorist group – has threatened aid agencies, leading the UN’s World Food Programme (WFP) to withdraw from southern areas in January 2010.

Watch: Jonathan Rugman investigates Somalia's stolen aid

World Food Programme

Last week the United States agreed to give WFP Somalia $14.5m towards food transportation, plus 19,000 metric tonnes of food, but Mark Bowden acknowledges restrictions on this aid are in place to the south.

“We would like the US to reconsider its restrictions, but that would of course be dependent upon the safeguards in terms of diversions, and abuses of the system,” Mr Bowden said.

Channel 4 News Foreign Affairs Correspondent Jonathan Rugman said the World Food Programme’s actions in the south raise important points.

“Now that drought and outright famine stalk the Horn of Africa, the question has to be asked whether the Americans are denying aid to ordinary Somalis as a weapon of war against militants who potentially threaten the West.”

“Washington has already cut its funding to WFP Somalia to such an extent that WFP is currently 42 per cent short of its current target of $303m,”

“The Americans are not alone. The British have not funded the WFP in Somalia since 2009,” he continued.

World Food Programme spokesman Gregg Barrow told Channel 4 News the agency is “hopeful conditions will allow us to return.”

Read more: Jonathan Rugman on why Somalia's refugees are not being fed at home
al-Shabaab fighters (Reuters)

Drone strikes

Those conditions in the south are likely to be affected as the US intensifies its conflict with al-Shabaab.

On 23 June two suspected militants in Somalia were killed by a missile strike from a predator drone in the southern town of Kismayo, marking the expansion of pilotless war to a sixth country.

Head of the UN in Somalia Mark Bowden expressed concern that the strikes could have a destabilising effect on humanitarian work in the region.

“I am concerned because in the past, these kinds of strikes have upset humanitarian operations and that has prejudiced some organisations,” Mr Bowden said.

“Proper consideration should be given when using drone strikes,” he continued.