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Hunger meets chaos in the Horn of Africa
NewsHunger meets chaos in the Horn of Africa

By Jeffrey Gettleman
Published: May 18, 2008

DAGAARI, Somalia: The global food crisis has arrived at Safia Ali's hut.

She can no longer afford rice, wheat or powdered milk. A drought has devastated her family's herd of goats, turning the family's sole livelihood into a pile of bleached bones and papery skin.

Safia, a 25-year-old mother of five, has not eaten in a week. Her year-old son - an adorable but listless boy who does not respond to a pinch - is also starving.

Somalia - and much of the volatile Horn of Africa - was about the last place on earth that needed a food crisis. Even before commodity prices started shooting up around the globe, civil war, displacement and imperiled aid operations had pushed many people here to the brink of famine.

But with food costs spiraling out of reach and the livestock dropping dead in the sand, villagers across this sun-blasted landscape say hundreds of people are dying of hunger and thirst.

This is what happens, economists say, when the global food crisis meets local chaos. There has been a collision of troubles throughout the region: skimpy rainfall, disastrous harvests, soaring food prices, dying livestock, escalating violence, rampant inflation and shrinking food aid.

Across the border in Ethiopia, in the war-racked Ogaden region, the situation sounds just as dire. In Darfur, Sudan, the United Nations has had to cut food rations because of a rise in banditry that endangers aid deliveries.

Kenya is looking vulnerable, too. A recent headline in one of Kenya's leading newspapers blared, "25,000 villagers risk starving," referring to a combination of drought, higher fertilizer and fuel costs and post-election violence that displaced thousands of farmers.

"These places aren't on the brink," said Jeffrey Sachs, a Columbia University economist and top UN adviser, who recently visited neighboring Kenya. "They've gone over the cliff."

Many Somalis are trying to stave off starvation with a thin gruel made from mashed thorn-tree branches called jerrin. Some village elders said their children were chewing on their own lips and tongues because they had no food.

The United Nations has declared a wide swath of central Somalia a humanitarian emergency, the final stage before a full-blown famine.

But Christian Balslev-Olesen, the head of Unicef operations in Somalia, said the situation was likely to become a famine in the coming weeks.

Famine is defined by several criteria, including malnutrition, mortality, food and water scarcity and destruction of livelihood. Some of those factors, like an acute malnutrition rate of 24 percent in some areas of Somalia, have already soared past emergency thresholds and are closing in on famine range.

Balslev-Olesen said Unicef recently received reports of people dying from hunger and thirst. It is hard to know exactly how many, he said, though local elders have put the number in the mid-hundreds.

"We have all the indicators in place for a catastrophe," Balslev-Olesen said. "We cannot call it that yet. But I'm very much concerned it's just a matter of weeks until we have to."

Many people already consider Somalia a catastrophe. It has some of the highest malnutrition rates anywhere in the world - in a good year.

The collapse of the central government in 1991 plunged Somalia into a spiral of clan-driven bloodshed that it has yet to pull out of. The era began with a famine that killed hundreds of thousands of people.

The consensus now is that all the same elements of the early 1990s - high-intensity conflict, widespread displacement and drought - are lining up again, and at a time of the biggest spike in global food prices in more than 30 years.

The UN says 2.6 million Somalis need assistance and the number could soon swell to 3.5 million, nearly half the estimated population. If there is excellent rain or a sudden outbreak of peace, the crisis may ease. But weather projections and even the rosiest political forecasts do not predict that.

Whether Somalia slips into a famine may depend on aid, and right now, that does not look so good.

Eleven aid workers have been killed this year, and UN officials say Somalia is as complicated - and dangerous - as ever.

Beyond the warlord and clan fighting, there is a budding conflict with Western aid workers. The Bush administration has said that terrorists with Al Qaeda are hiding in Somalia, sheltered by local Islamists, and has gone after them with U.S. airstrikes. But a recent U.S. attack on an Islamist leader in Dusa Marreb, a town in the center of the drought zone, has prompted revenge threats against Western aid workers. The United Nations and private aid organizations say it is now too dangerous to expand their lifesaving work in Dusa Marreb.

"We're in a different contextual environment right now," said Chris Smoot, the program director for World Vision aid projects in Somalia. He said there were anti-Western "rogue elements that can shut you down, in any shape or form, at any time."

Aid is also a serious problem in the contested Ogaden region of Ethiopia, across the border from here. A recent report written by a U.S. aid official said the drought there was "clearly worsening" and that the response by the Ethiopian government, one of the closest U.S. allies in Africa, was "absolutely abysmal."

This may be no accident. The Ethiopian government is struggling with an insurgency in the Ogaden, and the report said that "food is clearly being used as a weapon," with the government starving out rebel areas, while a mysterious warehouse of U.S.-donated food was discovered across the road from an Ethiopian army base.

"The USG," meaning the U.S. government, "cannot in good conscience allow the food operation to continue in its current manifestation," the report said. "This situation would be absolutely shameful in any other country."

The report was not made public, though a copy was provided to The New York Times. When asked about it, a senior U.S. aid official characterized the report as "just a snapshot and one person's observations and impressions."

But the senior aid official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, also said: "We're not saying there's not a crisis in the Ogaden. We're not saying the Ethiopian response has been satisfactory. But some progress has been made. And we need more."

Ethiopian officials declined to comment and have long denied human rights abuses in the Ogaden.

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