The famine declared in five areas in southern Somalia is expected to spread across all regions of the south in the coming four to six weeks, according to the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. The UN estimates twenty-nine thousand children under the age of five have died in southern Somalia and 3.7 million people are in need of humanitarian assistance across the country. Rashid Abdi, a Nairobi-based analyst for the International Crisis Group, calls the crisis in Somalia "a collective failure of the international community," which failed to act on early warnings of a crisis, or to invest in sustainable agriculture to make local communities self-sufficient. Additionally, al-Shabaab, an Islamic militant group which controls most of southern Somalia, had banned several international aid groups from the region in 2009. Though they lifted the ban last month , restrictions remain. The priority now, Abdi says, is to reach people trapped inside al-Shabaab-controlled territory, and "if that means negotiating with al-Shabaab, so be it."
What is the scale of Somalia's humanitarian crisis, and how do you see it evolving?
The scale of the crisis is unprecedented in many ways. The closest example you have is the 1984 famine in Ethiopia. Because the population of Somalia is not that big, the numbers of people who have died are less, but there's no denying the fact that you have a huge humanitarian crisis in southern Somalia and you have tens of thousands of people who have died, mostly children. Now the famine has spread to regions that used to be the bread basket of Somalia, especially the Juba valley. The whole of south and central Somalia is now in the midst of this famine.
Do you fear this humanitarian crisis will spread beyond Somalia, beyond the Horn of Africa?
This famine is the outcome of many factors. One of them, of course, is ecological, environmental, and climatic. There hasn't been any significant rain for the last four years, so the wells have dried up. You have deforestation in southern Somalia, especially involving charcoal traders. You have poor land use and overgrazing. So environmental factors contribute to it. And this goes beyond Somalia -- it extends to the whole Ogaden region of Ethiopia and northeastern Kenya. But in Kenya, and in Ethiopia especially, you have a more robust system of coping with disasters. You have a professional disaster management authority, and both these countries have learned how to cope with this crisis.
In southern Somalia, you don't have a government; you don't have a sense of any authority, except for al-Shabaab. So there has been a neglect of efforts to alleviate this kind of situation, and al-Shabaab has little experience in this aspect as well. So these regions are all closely tied together, and many of these so-called environmental factors are also close together. So in many ways, you can talk of a regional farming crisis, but at the moment the epicenter is Somalia.
[A]l-Shabaab has been enormously weakened by this crisis. Many in Somalia, even those who initially supported al-Shabaab, are now blaming them and seeing them as being culpable in this crisis.
What are the main problems in getting aid to the people in Somalia?
South-central Somalia is controlled by al-Shabaab. Al-Shabaab is paranoid about international NGOs and a year ago, they banned aid agencies from helping people in that region. A lot of the crisis is attributable to the fact that many people whose situation was very vulnerable did not get adequate help in time. That is why you see this crisis has reached this level. Al-Shabaab appears to have recently backtracked on that ban, but it's very difficult to tell who is in charge in al-Shabaab and very difficult to know their real motive. But you have flights going into Baidoa, which is controlled by al-Shabaab, and you have reports of aid agencies now reaching al-Shabaab-controlled territory in southern Somalia. This is a good step, but al-Shabaab has not opened all the humanitarian corridors in southern Somalia. There are still restrictions in place.
There are many other practical and logistical problems in delivering aid. You have only one port that is open to aid agencies, which is Mogadishu. Kismayo is not open because it is controlled by al-Shabaab. But you are talking of port facilities that are completely run aground; there is no machinery in place, and you have infrastructure that has not been rehabilitated in the last twenty years. You have checkpoints by militias extorting money. So the practicalities of delivery are enormously challenging in Somalia.
How do you interpret al-Shabaab's decision to leave Mogadishu (BBC) and how will it affect aid delivery?
We should be cautious in saying, "al-Shabaab did this; al-Shabaab said that." There' s no longer one al-Shabaab; you are talking of many al-Shabaabs. There was a faction that announced that "we are pulling out of Mogadishu." But the reports in the last two days clearly indicate that there are pockets of al-Shabaab presence in Mogadishu, and they have been conducting attacks against the AU peacekeeping forces. So, the picture is much more complicated.
Unless we know the power configurations within al-Shabaab, unless we know who calls the shots and who is in charge, it will be difficult for this crisis to have a peace dividend.