By Michael Logan and Shabtai Gold –
NAIROBI, Kenya — The United Nations officially declared an end Friday to the famine that struck parts of Somalia last year, but it warned the country still faced dire conditions and could see a reversal.
“Long-awaited rains, coupled with substantial agricultural inputs and the humanitarian response deployed in the last six months, are the main reasons for this improvement,” the U.N.’s Food and Agriculture Organization’s Director-General Jose Graziano da Silva told journalists in Nairobi after visiting southern Somalia.
The U.N. estimates that a drought — combined with ongoing conflict and food shortages — had claimed tens of thousands of lives in 2011.
The improvements to agriculture, however, were not enough for many in the country. Southern Somalia still has one of the highest mortality rates in the world, according to the U.N.
“Millions of people still need food, clean water, shelter and other assistance to survive and the situation is expected to deteriorate in May,” warned the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs.
According to a report by the FAO and the United States Agency for International Development, the number of people in need of emergency humanitarian assistance has fallen from 4 million last year to 2.34 million, or 31 percent of the Somali population.
The FAO said 750,000 people had been at risk of death during the height of the crisis.
A bumper harvest, helped by the distribution of seeds during a period of rains between October and December, helped reduce the scale of the emergency, which Graziano warned was “not over.”
“It can only be resolved with a combination of rains and continued, coordinated, long-term actions that build up the resilience of local populations and link relief with development,” Graziano said.
“We can’t avoid droughts, but we can put measures in place to try to prevent them from becoming a famine,” he added.
The U.N. declared a famine in six out of eight regions of southern and central Somalia in July last year.
Islamist rebel group al-Shabaab, which has been battling to oust the internationally-backed government since early 2007, was said to have worsened humanitarian conditions when it placed a ban on international relief groups.
Somalis in areas worst-hit by the drought were often unable to access life-saving aid, forcing hundreds of thousands to flee their homes. Many crossed the border to refugee camps in neighboring Kenya and Ethiopia.
The U.N. cautioned that aid agencies still faced heavy restrictions in Somalia. The International Committee of the Red Cross, the last international aid group able to operate freely across the whole of Somalia, was banned this week by al-Shabaab.
“Any significant interruption to assistance would reverse the gains made,” warned U.N. OCHA.
The U.N.’s appeal to donors to raise $1.5 billion to help Somalia in 2012 has so far met a weak response, with only 5 percent of the sum covered. An international summit is planned for later this month in London.