Washington, Aug 2 (IPS) - While an estimated 12.4 million people linger on the brink of starvation in the Great Horn of Africa, U.S. officials and world relief agencies said Monday that even in a "best case scenario" the crisis will worsen as the areas in most desperate need remain cut off from access to relief.
"We haven't seen a humanitarian crisis this bad in a generation," Reuben Brigety, deputy assistant secretary in the Bureau of Population, Refugees and Migration at the Department of State, said at a panel here "Famine in Somalia: An Expected Turn for the Worse", hosted by the Brookings Institute Monday.
"This is an unparalleled situation," added Semhar Araua, Horn of Africa regional policy advisor at Oxfam International. "This is about people's ability to cope, and people in this region have been able to respond day in and day out, for years, through conflict and insecurity, and it is at this time that we are seeing an inability to cope…an inability to find the basics."
Somalia has been the worst affected by the region's drought, which the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Human Affairs said Monday is only getting worse as the upcoming months officially mark the region's dry season.
While aid deliveries to the region have been delayed in general from an international community caught off guard by the severity of the drought, what sets the most affected areas in Somalia apart, according to Allan Jury, director of the U.S. Relations Office of the World Food Programme (WFP), is the near total absence of humanitarian access to those areas.
"We do have funding challenges but I would say the access challenges are in many ways bigger than the funding challenges," Jury said of the southern region, where he said his agency has been unable to operate since January 2010. "There is a reason why Ethiopia is a manageable expanding crisis and Somalia is a famine. They are not accidental and they are man-made…because the rain statistics on both sides of that border are very similar."
As ugly as the word drought has become in the country's strife- stricken south, it may not be the primary setback for the some two million clinging to life there – especially when relief agencies struggle to funnel food into areas controlled by Al-Qaeda-linked insurgents.
"We have a situation in Somalia that is truly chilling…the most serious crisis we have seen for a long time," Jury said. "The key issue is that Somalia is probably the most dangerous country we operate in."
The problem of access: U.S. counterterrorism restrictions or al- Shabab?
On Jul. 28, after the U.N. announced that the crisis in two regions of the country's south had degenerated to famine, the U.S. pledged 28 million dollars in aid.
But not a dime is expected to makes its way to either of the two regions officially declared famine states, both of which are under the control of al-Shabab, the Al-Qaeda-affiliated Islamist extremist organisation.
Some have attributed the U.S.'s restricted food aid pipeline to national security and counterterrorism policies that mitigate concerns that aid would fall into the hands of Islamist extremists in southern Somalia.
"We are committed to saving lives in Somalia and we are already working in any area not controlled by al-Shabaab," Donald Steinberg, deputy administrator of the U.S. Agency for International Development, said at a recent briefing in London. "Unfortunately, about 60 percent of people affected are in al-Shabaab territories. We've instructed UNICEF and [WFP] that they can use our assistance in any part not under al-Shabaab control."
U.S. policies that restrict aid in the name of national security have been widely criticised for politicising urgent aid. Yet the U.S. may not have even had a choice when it came to southern Somalia; Al- Shabab already banned humanitarian groups, including WFP, from providing aid in the regions it controls, denying that anyone is starving in those areas.
"WFP's exile from southern Somalia came in January 2010 at conditions set by al-Shabab and al-Shabab affiliates, it did not as a result of any restrictions set by the U.S. government," WFP's Jury reiterated.
Jury noted that WFP has recently worked out arrangements with the U.S. government that allow it to carry out assistance programmes in various areas in Somalia where it is not explicitly banned by al- Shabab, adding that the U.S. has "shown a willingness to be more flexible in expanding the geographical areas where [WFP] can use that assistance if [they] obtain access".
"We feel that our biggest challenge is getting the access to the al- Shabab areas, not restrictions imposed by donors at this time," he added.
The U.S. State Department's Brigety continued to mitigate concerns that the U.S. was overlooking the severity of the crisis in Somalia to protect its own security interests as far as al-Shabab is concerned.
"Collectively, we need to find innovative ways of engaging with all the actors of the ground to ensure that access is provided. We are approaching all these options aggressively," he said. "We are very much aware of the need of engaging in dialogue and I can assure you that we are approaching these issues in a manner that recognises the gravity that the situation merits."