January 28, 2011 / 7:34 PM / 9 years ago

INTERVIEW-Somalia faces worst drought in five years - UN

* Agencies unable to reach most malnourished children * Food prices up 75 pct in 6 months, worsened by hoarding

* Rebels refuse food aid, say it encourages dependency

By Katy Migiro

NAIROBI, Jan 28 (Reuters) - Somalia is entering its worst drought in five years and aid agencies are unable to feed the majority of people in need, a senior United Nations humanitarian official said on Friday.

Al Shabaab rebels, who profess loyalty to al Qaeda, have refused to allow food aid to be distributed in southern and central Somalia, which they control.

“It looks as if we are now going into something that last happened five years ago, which is an acute drought cycle,” Mark Bowden, the U.N. Humanitarian Coordinator for Somalia, said in an interview with Reuters.

“Clearly the issue of food distribution is going to become more and more pressing.”

The number of Somalis in need of aid has increased by 20 percent in the last six months to 2.4 million, 32 percent of the population of 7.5 million, according to the Food and Agriculture Organisation’s (FAO) unit report on Somalia.

Bowden said half the population might require aid as the drought intensifies. He said the rebels were unwilling to negotiate with the U.N. because they did not believe food aid was necessary.

“There is a sort of sense from some of the armed groups that food assistance creates dependency and is not good for the population,” Bowden said.

Al Shabaab officials contacted by Reuters declined comment.

Acute malnutrition among children has risen to 21 percent from 15 percent in the last six months. Three quarters of these children are in the rebel-controlled south.

SURGING FOOD PRICES

Sorghum and maize prices have increased by 75 to 80 percent following the failure of the October to December rains.

“We have seen a complete crop failure,” said Grainne Moloney, chief technical advisor at FAO’s Food Security and Nutrition Analysis Unit.

Many people, particularly some 400,000 displaced people living in the Afgooye corridor 25 km (16 miles) outside the capital Mogadishu, cannot afford food because they have no work.

Some are returning to conflict-stricken Mogadishu to earn money. Increasing numbers will be forced to migrate in search of work as the drought worsens, aid officials said.

“We have to create the conditions for local, temporary, rapid employment to make sure that people can access their cash,” said Luca Alinovi, head of FAO Somalia.

“It’s critical that we save their lives and we prevent them being displaced now before it becomes a critical problem.”

Providing money through farm work projects or cash vouchers for hungry people could relieve hoarding, which is contributing to soaring cereal prices. Food aid would also bring food prices down, he said.

“Famines are usually market-led phenomena,” said Bowden. “Just increasing food into the market is sometimes a legitimate means of better addressing critical conditions.” (Editing by David Clarke and Tim Pearce)

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