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.
Has the famine weakened al-Shabaab in any way?
Al-Shabaab has been enormously weakened by this crisis. Many are blaming al-Shabaab for catalyzing the [crisis] by locking out aid agencies. Al-Shabaab has been under enormous pressure from clan leaders in the region to act fast, but they have been dragging their feet, and when they reacted it was probably too late. Tens of thousands of children have already died. Tens of thousands of people have fled as refugees to eastern Kenya and southeastern Ethiopia. Many in Somalia, even those who initially supported al-Shabaab, are now blaming them and seeing them as culpable in this crisis.
Does this present an opportunity to stabilize the country?
If al-Shabaab was a cohesive organization and it was serious about averting humanitarian crisis in southern Somalia, then there would have been an opportunity. The problem is that you have a string of factions of al-Shabaab; you don't know who speaks for al-Shabaab. Even engaging them on the question of provisions of humanitarian supplies to the vulnerable populations in southern Somalia is no longer credible, because you don't know how senior or powerful that interlocutor is. 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.
Potentially there is an opportunity that you may cut a deal with one faction or another. But what if you have a faction that doesn't like it, that creates its own challenges. As long as al-Shabaab is fragmented and deeply divided as a group, the possibilities of engagement for a positive result are very remote. Many had hoped that engaging al-Shabaab on humanitarian corridors and a ceasefire for a brief period [would] kick-start a positive dynamic. But I don't think we are there.
Do you think the international community is doing enough to alleviate the humanitarian crisis in Somalia and the rest of the Horn? And what more can they do?
This is a failure of the whole international system of aid delivery. We had excellent analysis coming out of Somalia on a potential food crisis. We had all the early-warning systems many months ago, but perhaps everyone thought, "Things will not be that bad." This is a collective failure of the international community.
What should be the main priorities of the international community in the short term?
Reach those people who are desperately in need, especially those who are trapped inside al-Shabaab-controlled territory in southern Somalia. Every effort must be made to reach out to those people. If that means negotiating with al-Shabaab, so be it. It is actually more moral to engage al-Shabaab in that than anything else, to save millions of lives.
Somalis' displacement will continue until there is a resolution of the crisis, a resolution of the political conflict, and that appears far away because of what's going on in south Somalia.
Beyond emergency aid, what would be your policy recommendations for the international community to prevent such crises in the future?
We need to learn from this crisis that there are many factors that contributed to it. One is conflict. And conflict resolution should be essential. The epicenter of this famine is southern Somalia, which traditionally used to be the bread basket of the country. So the question to ask is, "Why are we in this state?" And it's clear it is because the [international community has] not made the investment that needs to be made in those [famine-affected] communities in how to [improve] agriculture, how to build their coping mechanisms. We need to help those communities become self-sufficient because they are capable of it.
We don't act until the crisis is in full bloom and then we throw bags of wheat. That is not how to deal with crisis. We need to help communities to fend for themselves, to help themselves, to rebuild their traditional methods of coping. Somalia has had many severe droughts in the past, but why has this drought turned into a famine? There are reasons for it, and those are the lessons we need to learn. And we need to act fast when we get evidence that things are really serious.
So are you asking the international community to invest in agriculture?
Absolutely, and not only in agriculture. People have various methods of coping. For example, the Juba Valley and the Shebelle region are drained by two huge rivers: the Shebelle River and the Juba River. They drain massive volumes of water into the Indian Ocean. So if we build methods of water conservation in those parts, we will have enough water for human use, for livestock use, and for agriculture as well. And these systems used to exist. It's just that now there isn't any government.
We also need to criminalize and punish those who are involved in the charcoal trade, because they are contributing to this crisis. Much of southern Somalia has now turned into a lunar landscape because of the [deforestation] work of criminal mafia groups who are involved in the charcoal trade. We should criminalize the buying of Somali charcoal too, tightening the screws both on the supply end and on the demand end.
What are the implications of large-scale displacements of Somalis who are fleeing to Kenya and Ethiopia, countries also facing some level of drought?
Somalis' displacement will continue until there is a resolution of the crisis, a resolution of the political conflict and that appears far away because of what's going on in south Somalia. When we talk about the drought in northeastern Kenya and Ethiopia, these are places where despite a lot of hardships, you have governments in place, you have administrations that are in place, and they have better coping methods.
This interview first appeared on CFR.org