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Displaced families line up to receive food rations at a feeding center in Somalia. (AFP/Getty Images)

Somalia's Famine Is Over, But Millions Still Need Food Aid

by Eliza Barclay
Feb 3, 2012

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Rain and aid have helped pull Somalia back from a famine, the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization said today.

Why can the famine now be called "over"? The U.N. organization says there has been a significant drop in the number of people in need of emergency humanitarian assistance in Somalia since last year — from 4 million to 2.34 million, or 31 percent of the population.

After months and months of severe drought, rain finally fell between October and December 2011. The international community also stepped up direct aid to farmers, according to a report by FAO and the U.S. government. Farmers are now getting seeds, tools, tractors and training, allowing some to double their corn and sorghum harvests.

But the FAO and aid groups say the situation is still extremely dire. "Somalia is still in the throes of its worst humanitarian crisis in decades," Senait Gebregziabher, Oxfam's country director for Somalia, said today in a statement.

The unforgiving weather in the first half of 2011 compromised the food crops and livestock Somalis rely on. The U.N. on July 20 declared several parts of Somalia a famine zone as millions sought refuge in neighboring countries.

The arid Horn of Africa has long been subject to chronic drought, but scientists say rainfall is becoming increasingly less frequent and less predictable.

The drought has affected Kenya, Somalia, Ethiopia, Eritrea and Djibouti, but the situation only reached famine proportions in Somalia.

Somalia's fractured and chaotic system of governance exacerbated the environmental factors that helped create the crisis. Insecurity and the threat of violence from al-Shabab, the Islamist militant group, prevented farmers from tending their crops and animals, and others from accessing clean water and food in the markets in some areas. The group also interfered with relief agencies' efforts to help the hungry during acute moments of the crisis.

Estimates are that between 50,000 and 100,000 people died from the famine, mostly Somalis.

The food shortage was predicted as early as August 2010, but most donors did not respond until famine was declared official, a report released in January by Oxfam and Save the Children found. Many more deaths could have been prevented had the aid community been more responsive, they said.

As NPR's Michele Keleman has reported, foreign aid groups are also worried about the effect of budget cuts in the U.S. on funding for programs that could prevent future food crises in the region.

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