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Famine, Strife in Somalia an ‘Unfolding Tragedy’

July 29, 2011 at 12:00 AM EDT
The United Nation's World Food Program has been airlifting food and supplies into the famine-stricken areas of the Horn of Africa. Jeffrey Brown discusses the WFP's efforts to raise funds to pay for aid with the program's director, Josette Sheeran.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: Jeffrey Brown takes the story from there.

JEFFREY BROWN: The United Nations World Food Program has been airlifting food and supplies into the affected areas of the Horn of Africa. The second flight into Mogadishu arrived just today.

It’s also raising funds to pay for aid, so far more than $250 million from donor countries, and has said it needs to double that to support operations over the next six months.

The program’s director, Josette Sheeran, recently returned from the region and joins us now.

Welcome to you.

JOSETTE SHEERAN, World Food Program: Hi.

JEFFREY BROWN: What is your current assessment of the situation in those camps we saw and in Somalia?

JOSETTE SHEERAN: Well, I was just in those camps, and it really is an unfolding tragedy, as people flee the areas in Somalia where aid workers have not had any access.

About 60 percent of the people in Somalia have been inaccessible to aid. And those are the people you’re seeing in the camps. Many of those people have walked for weeks, sometimes up to six weeks. And many of the women I talked to reported having to leave children along the road who were too weak to make it and who are dying on the way to the camps.

JEFFREY BROWN: And who is it affected most? Is it children like the ones we just saw there? And what are you able to do for them?

JOSETTE SHEERAN: Well, it’s been called the children’s famine, and so this particular area inside Somalia that has been declared a famine zone again has been inaccessible to aid.

The reason it’s hitting its children hardest is because they’re the weakest when they go without food or water. They simply cannot go for all of those weeks. And if they are not given access to the types of food that you saw in your video, such as these ready-to-use foods — and we’re trying to airlift in the supplies to get closer to them, to these areas that aid workers have not been allowed in.

JEFFREY BROWN: You know, let’s explain and talk a little bit about this inaccessibility issue.

In Somalia, the worst-hit country, at least some elements of the militant Islam group Al-Shabab have been trying to prevent food from being dispersed.

How do they do that and how much impact is it really having?

JOSETTE SHEERAN: Well, it’s important to understand this drought affects the whole Horn of Africa, about five countries.

And we’re currently reaching 10 million people with lifesaving aid, including 1.5 million in Somalia. It’s the 60 percent under the control of groups that do not want aid coming in where there’s little pockets of access, but not enough to get in there and really give them the lifesaving support.

People are on the move, and these roads of death — they’re turning into roads of death because they cannot make it far enough, the elderly especially and the young children.

JEFFREY BROWN: And this is a country without a functioning — a real functioning government that is able to just go in and do something.

JOSETTE SHEERAN: Well, I was in Mogadishu a few days ago, where we’re reaching 300,000 people. We’re airlifting in more supplies. We can’t keep up with the demand that’s coming from southern Somalia into Mogadishu.

But just two days ago, there was a shoot-out at the camp there, where the IDPs, the displaced people, are. And everything was looted, including the food there, where people were working. So it’s very dangerous, and the World Food Program has lost 14 workers since 2008 in Somalia just trying to help feed kids there.

JEFFREY BROWN: I want to ask you about another complexion that I have seen raised, which is the U.S. anti-terror laws that restrict aid from going to a place like Somalia, where there is — it might get into the hands of Al-Shabab now. How much has that been a factor, and do you think that perhaps, even temporarily, such restrictions need to be lifted at this point?

JOSETTE SHEERAN: Well, given the life-and-death situation, United States now has really encouraged us to get into all the areas in Somalia we can, where we can provide assurances that we’re reaching the people most in need.

And so the U.S. has contributed $60 million to help the people in Somalia. And we’re now reaching some of the areas that now are newly accessible. But also in the north and center, we can reach, again, over 1.5 million people.

This support is vital. And, again, we’re airlifting in these nutritional products for children with the support of the U.S.

JEFFREY BROWN: Now, is the situation in terms of access better in the countries surrounding Somalia?

JOSETTE SHEERAN: Mm-hmm. Oh, absolutely.

This is the worst drought declared in 60 years. But we have to ask ourselves why we’re not seeing deaths in Ethiopia or Kenya, like we would have in past droughts. And in part, it’s because resiliency efforts have been put in place. The World Food Program, we have been building up our efforts since last August, seeing this drought coming.

And where we can reach people, we’re not seeing the types of deaths or out-of-control situation. So the world actually has been doing a good job, and for — and our world has contributed half-a-billion dollars so far since January to build up supplies to the people affected by this drought.

JEFFREY BROWN: Now, how does something like this happen? We keep talking about a drought, and that’s been a long time in coming.

JOSETTE SHEERAN: Right.

JEFFREY BROWN: Every time there is something like this, there is a manmade element to this, I suppose, right? We knew it was coming and there it is.

You have watched events like this. How does it happen?

JOSETTE SHEERAN: Well, droughts may not be avoidable, but famines are.

And so what we are seeing again is, in this place where this epic drought has hit, there’s no water, there’s no vegetation anywhere. I have flown over most of the region. This can be prevented with not only pre-action, but then emergency action when it really gets terrible. This happens. We have seen epic flooding in other places in the world, earthquakes. This is a natural disaster.

It’s when you can’t get access to people that you see it turn into a famine. A famine is about the state of individuals, not of the weather. And so the famine means that you have severely malnourished populations. Anything over 15 percent malnutrition rate is an emergency, and we have seen areas in Somalia now with over 45 percent. That’s almost half the children in critical shape like this video that you have just shown.

JEFFREY BROWN: And before we end, you have raised a certain amount of money. You were talking about the amount from the U.S. But you say you need double that over the next six months.

JOSETTE SHEERAN: Yes.

We’re putting out an urgent call. I got a call from the king of Saudi Arabia’s finance minister giving $50 million just two days ago. We have seen Canada, we have seen Australia, we have seen Europe, we have seen Japan, even as it suffers from its own disasters coming in, and some of the nations of Africa now offering help for Africa helping Africa.

This is very important. We need — in this year, about $1 billion will have been spent to protect lives, and we need the world to respond for this last $250 million that’s vitally needed.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right.

Josette Sheeran is the director of the World Food Program.

Thank you very much.

JOSETTE SHEERAN: Thank you. Thank you.