Press Conference by UN Resident and Humanitarian Coordinator for Somalia

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The international response to the 2011 famine in Somalia had had a “tremendous impact” in reducing mortality and raising nutritional well-being, but the fragility of the situation had led to a record humanitarian appeal this year, the top United Nations relief official in the country said today.

“Those gains are very fragile and require the continued support and engagement of the international community,” Mark Bowden, United Nations Resident and Humanitarian Coordinator for Somalia said at a Headquarters press conference. He added that the $1.5 billion requested for Somalia — a record sum — reflected the precarious situation of many people in the troubled country. Not only did 4 million of them still need regular assistance in terms of food, water and sanitation, but it was also critical to enable people displaced by drought to return home so as not to increase the number of long-term destitute displaced people, which already stood at 1.5 million.

For that reason, and to avoid a continuing cycle of drought, famine and crisis, he continued, it was necessary to restore livelihood assets such as livestock and agricultural needs, for which $400 million had been included in the appeal. Nobody in Somalia questioned the need for that assistance, including the Al-Shabaab insurgent group that controlled a great deal of territory, he stressed.

Recounting the 2011 effort, he recalled that in July famine had been declared in three zones, and more zones were seen as vulnerable. A “tremendous response” from the international community had ensued, raising $1.3 billion and stemming the expansion of areas affected by famine, and reducing the number of people suffering to less than a third of the peak of 750,000. Such associated diseases as acute watery diarrhoea and others had been brought under control, he added, noting that it had been proven that the response could be effective, even in Somalia’s difficult situation.

Asked about the challenges of gaining humanitarian access to areas controlled by Al-Shabaab, he said that, although the group easily accepted programmes for agricultural self-sufficiency, they often challenged the supply of food and other provisions, which called for a strategic approach by humanitarian organizations. Increased fighting and incursions into insurgent-controlled areas had led to greater restrictions, but mechanisms had been developed over the years to deal with such obstacles. “We work in a very dynamic environment,” he said.

Responding to another question, he said Al-Shabaab had set up drought committees involved in local distribution, and its own aid systems, but they had not been adequate to deal with the magnitude of the needs. There was, therefore, an interest in addressing both emergency needs and self-sufficiency. He said that, as Humanitarian Coordinator, he lacked direct cooperation with Al-Shabaab, although some non-governmental organizations worked alongside the group to provide humanitarian relief.

To questions about piracy in that context he replied that the problem stemmed from organized crime, which had flourished due to Somalia’s lack of governance. Those previously involved in kidnapping had moved into piracy and sometimes moved back to kidnapping for ransom on land, which could have a negative impact on humanitarian operations. Better, more systematic programmes were needed to address organized crime, as well as the needs of youth, he emphasized.

Asked about the effects on humanitarian operations of the proposed monitoring of ports to stem arms trafficking, and of neighbouring Kenya’s military operation in Somalia, which had reportedly resulted in the bombing of a camp for displaced persons, he pointed out that Kismayo, the port in question, was not a major point of entry for humanitarian supplies.

As for the bombing, he said there was a lack of clarity as to what had happened on the ground. International organizations had submitted reports to the Kenyan Government, and the United Nations had recently established a civilian/military liaison unit responsible for “deconfliction” — making the military aware of the presence of humanitarian and civilian populations.

In response to final questions, he said the crisis would last at least until July, if not longer, and must be dealt with from a longer-term perspective as Somalia’s malnutrition rates were still among the highest in the world. Pressures were building on the entire region, he warned. “If we don’t meet the needs of Somalia, we increase the pressure on the Horn of Africa.”

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