Somalia famine: PM Ali sets up aid protection force

Valerie Amos meets drought-affected Somalis in Mogadishu, 13 August 2011
Image caption UN envoy Valerie Amos was visibly moved as she met drought-affected Somalis

Somalia's prime minister has announced the creation of a special force to protect convoys delivering aid to people affected by drought and famine.

Abdiweli Mohamed Ali said the force would comprise 300 trained men, helped by African peacekeepers who are providing security in Mogadishu.

He was speaking after talks with UN emergency relief co-ordinator, Valerie Amos, in the Somali capital.

Some 12 million people are affected by drought in the region, the UN says.

Mr Ali said the force would have two main jobs.

"Number one is to secure the convoys and to protect food aid, and also to protect the camps when food is distributed," he said.

"Second is to stabilise the city and to fight banditry and looting and any sort of untidiness."

Mr Mohamed Ali's use of the word "untidiness" was something of an understatement: Mogadishu was until a few days ago divided in two, with the Islamist insurgent group, al-Shabab, occupying several districts.

It has now withdrawn from most parts of the city, but has vowed to keep on fighting the transitional government.

Extended drought is causing a severe food crisis in the Horn of Africa, which includes Kenya, Ethiopia, Djibouti and Somalia. Weather conditions over the Pacific means the rains have failed for two seasons and are unlikely to return until October.
An estimated 12 million people in the region are affected by the drought. The UN has declared a famine in six areas of southern Somalia, where it says 750,000 people could die in the coming months in the absence of adequate response.
The humanitarian problem is made worse by conflicts. Militants had lifted a ban on aid agencies operating in parts of southern Somalia, but have since accused Western groups of exaggerating the scale of the crisis and again limited access.
Since the beginning of 2011, around 15,000 Somalis each month have fled into refugee camps in Kenya and Ethiopia looking for food and water. The refugee camp at Dadaab, in Kenya, has been overwhelmed by more than 420,000 people.
Farmers unable to meet their basic food costs are abandoning their herds. High cereal and fuel prices had already forced them to sell many animals before the drought and their smaller herds are now unprofitable or dying.
The refugee problem may have been preventable. However, violent conflict in the region has deterred international investment in long-term development programmes, which could have reduced the effects of the drought.
Development aid would focus on reducing deforestation, topsoil erosion and overgrazing and improving water conservation. New roads and infrastructure for markets would help farmers increase their profits.
The result of climate conditions, conflict and lack of investment is that millions of people in Kenya, Ethiopia and Somalia are currently existing on food rations in what is said to be East Africa's worst drought for 60 years.
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'Scaling up operations'

Security has improved in Mogadishu, although pockets of resistance remain.

The African Union has 9,000 peacekeepers in the city protecting the weak interim government.

After their meeting, Baroness Amos said the improvement in security meant the UN could intensify its relief efforts in the region.

"We are scaling up our operations in Mogadishu," she said.

"UNHCR [UN High Commission for Refugees], for example, has had three flights come in this week.

"Unicef [UN Children's Fund] has had flights come in. The World Food Programme has had flights come in."

But the aid operation in Somalia still faces huge challenges.

Most of the famine-affected areas are still controlled by al-Shabab, which has often been reluctant to cooperate with international agencies.

The UN said earlier this week that aid was only reaching 20% of the Somalis who need it.

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