Somalia received a rare bit of good news, recently. After struggling for months to endure the deadliest famine in 60 years, the U.N. Food Security Nutrition Analysis Unit today lifted its "famine" designation for three Somali regions -- Bakool, Bay, and Lower Shabelle -- downgrading them to the "lesser emergency" phase.
The improvement follows a break in the region's deadly drought and progress in the U.N.'s ability to deliver food to the country's poorest people. In recent months, the U.N. has increased assistance to more than 2.4 million people.
But why is no one declaring victory?
The gains comes amid fears that Somalia is set to descend into a wider regional conflict zone, as Ethiopian forces weigh joining Kenya in its military offensive against Islamic militants, known as al Shabaab, in Somalia. There is little hope, meanwhile, that the broader humanitarian crisis will end before next summer.
By any measure, the situation remains grim in Somalia, where 2 million people are still in need of foreign assistance, and where a quarter of the population requires international handouts -- even in the best of times. Famine is expected to continue to stalk the lives of people in the capital Mogadishu, and other parts of the country, through the end of the year. Indeed, life is so rough that desperate Somalis are fleeing to Yemen, which is facing its own political and humanitarian crisis.
The Deyr seasonal rains that marked an end to the country's stifling drought, allowing farmers to store water and to plant crops, have brought a new set of troubles: fear of water-borne diseases like cholera that may prove particularly lethal for a population emerging from the strains of prolonged bouts of malnutrition. And just because they're some rain doesn't mean there's food. A lack of grain and staple goods is expected to persist well into next summer.
"It is welcome news that scaled up humanitarian assistance has had an impact in Somalia and that areas of Bay, Bakool, and Lower Shabelle are no longer in famine," Valerie Amos, the U.N. Humanitarian Relief Coordinator said today. "However, the situation remains critical for millions of people, as these areas continue to face a severe humanitarian emergency. The progress is fragile and needs to be sustained.... I remain extremely concerned by the critical situation in Mogadishu and other parts of south and central Somalia," she added.
Amos and other U.N. officials, meanwhile, are growing increasingly alarmed about a widening military conflict in Somalia.
Ethiopia is considering launching a military offensive against al-Shabaab as part of a broader African Union push to prop up a weak, internationally backed transitional government, according to a report in the New York Times. It follows a Kenyan military offensive against al-Shabaab that is now entering its fifth week and which is threatening to jeopardize some of the U.N.'s humanitarian gains.
"We are deeply concerned by the impact of the intensification of the conflict in Somalia, which threatens to increase internal displacement and may also reduce the ability of aid organizations to provide life-saving assistance to people coping with famine," Amos said. "All parties should refrain from actions that disrupt access and respect international humanitarian law."
The Kenyan military sent nearly 2,000 troops into Somalia on Oct. 16, following a series of brazen cross-border kidnappings of Western tourists that threatened to damage the country's vital tourism industry. In recent weeks, Kenyan troops and fighter jets have launched attacks on al Shabaab strongholds in an effort to carve out a buffer zone that will prevent further attacks.
Mark Bowden, the U.N. Humanitarian Coordinator for Somalia, told Turtle Bay that he is worried that a "prolonged" military offensive could undermine the U.N.'s ability to stabilize people's access to food. "What worries me is that if this is a prolonged operation it could have an impact on the harvesting season in famine-affected areas. If people don't plant or think they can't get a harvest I think we've got a much bigger problem."
So far, the Kenyan's military operation has not impeded the U.N.'s main relief assistance routes, which pass through Mogadshiu and Afgoye, according to Bowden. But it has provided problems along the border, halting the flow of displaced Somalis -- as many as 1,000 a day earlier this year -- into what is now the world's largest refugee camp, inside Kenya.
Political analysts, meanwhile, have doubts about the capacity of Somalia's African neighbors to impose peace in that country. The Ethiopian military, the region's most powerful army, invaded Somalia in 2006, to little benefit. Kenya, which is engaged in its first major military operation in years, lacks a clear, and achievable, military objective that can stabilize its border with a country traumatized by decades of war and chaos.
"When you think it can't get any worse in Somalia, Kenya invades," said Richard Downie, a fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. "There is a lot of sympathy for the Kenyans and nobody denies they had a right to act here, but this will just add to the complexity of the task of addressing the humanitarian situation."
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Longtime Washington Post correspondent Colum Lynch reports on all things United Nations for Turtle Bay.