The number of famine zones in Somalia was cut in half Friday, as U.S. and U.N. food agencies said aid had reduced death rates. That good news was tempered by warnings that a quarter million Somalis face imminent starvation, and that military battles are preventing food deliveries.
The U.S. and U.N. food agencies downgraded the famine rating in three areas of Somalia to emergency status but said three other areas _ including the refugee communities of Somalia's capital, Mogadishu _ remain in the famine zone. Overall, the agencies said the food situation in Somalia remains the worst in the world and the worst in Horn of Africa country since the region's 1991-92 famine.
"Death rates, especially for young children, remain extremely high, in part due to continued outbreaks of measles, cholera, and malaria. Tens of thousands of people have died since April and deaths are likely to continue over the coming months," said the announcement from the U.N.'s Food Security and Nutrition Analysis Unit and the U.S.'s Famine Early Warning System.
Save the Children credited the international aid effort with helping to lessen the famine, but said the crisis is far from over and warned of high mortality rates among children in Mogadishu. The aid group Oxfam warned that conflict in Somalia continues to slow relief efforts and said international leaders need to refocus efforts on the hunger crisis.
Hundreds of Kenyan troops moved into Somalia last month to fight al-Qaida-linked militants, whom African Union troops are fighting in Mogadishu, and Oxfam said it had to suspend aid to 27,000 people in Somalia's Lower and Middle Juba regions as a result. Oxfam did not single out Kenya but said the international community was jeopardizing a positive step forward with a potential two steps back.
"When drought and famine made headline news, the international community responded generously with support. Now the conflict threatens to jeopardize the very relief efforts they're funding. The international community must not give with one hand and then take with the other by ignoring the needs of Somali people who are struggling in the face of a famine," said Senait Gebregziabher, Oxfam's Somalia director.
East Africa _ including Somalia, Kenya, Ethiopia and Djibouti _ has experienced a crippling drought over the last year, but that drought turned into famine only in Somalia, where aid groups have reduced access because of limitations placed on them by al-Shabab.
Tens of thousands of people have died, though Mark Bowden, the U.N.'s top humanitarian official for Somalia, told The Associated Press on Friday he doesn't believe there will ever be a complete and accurate death toll. Bowden said the international community has mostly fulfilled its moral duty to help Somalis in need.
"I think so far they have. The appeal was for $1 billion and we received $800 million dollars," Bowden said. "The big question is whether that can be sustained, which it has to be, for next year."
The U.S. and U.N. groups said famine would persist at least through December in the Mogadishu and Afgoye refugee camps and in the Middle Shabelle region.
The U.N. children's agency said thousands of children's lives have been saved since the famine was first announced in July thanks to international donations. But the UNICEF representative to Somalia, Sikander Khan, said children are still in imminent danger.
Save the Children said children are still dying at a "frightening rate" across Somalia.
"The aid we're distributing is making a difference, but this crisis is nowhere near over, and any let up in the response on the back of this news could cost the lives of thousands of children," the group said. "We must not allow this fragile progress to be undone."
The U.N. and U.S. agencies that monitor famine conditions said humanitarian assistance to southern Somalia was extremely limited until September and October due to an inadequate international response and restricted humanitarian access. Since September, the groups said that "substantial" flows of food aid into local markets have helped bring food prices down.
The two agencies said the population in need of emergency assistance in Somalia is currently around 4 million people. The U.N. said earlier this year that 13 million people across the Horn of Africa were in need.