International aid groups are preparing to return to southern Somalia nearly two years after threats by a radical Islamic group forced them out, but a devastating and spreading famine has forced the the agencies to do whatever is necessary to save lives.
The agencies are also acting in the face of U.S. concern that the aid could end up bolstering the al-Qaeda affiliated terror group Al-Shabaab.
Parts of southern Somalia have now been officially declared a famine, the first of the 21st century according to the United Nations. Nearly 3 million Somalis are affected and aid organizations are grappling with how to reach the most destitute areas, which are currently under the control of the militant Islamic group Shabaab.
The humanitarian "emergency" became a "famine" after the U.N. determined more than 30 percent of children in the areas were suffering from acute malnutrition, and two adults or four children out of a group of 10,000 people were dying of hunger each day.
"If we don't act now, famine will spread to all eight regions of southern Somalia within two months, due to poor harvests and infectious disease outbreaks," said Mark Bowden, the humanitarian coordinator for Somalia. "We still do not have all the resources for food, clean water, shelter and health services to save the lives of hundreds of thousands of Somalis in desperate need."
International humanitarian organizations have not operated in the area for nearly two years. Most pulled out in early 2010 because of insecurity and demands by Al -Shabaab, such as banning women aid workers and charging a "tax" on all assistance. The tax was particularly problematic because giving any money or goods to the group would be violating U.S. anti-terrorism funding laws.
Al Shabaab has been declared a terrorist organization by the United States, which historically has been the largest funder of food aid to Somalia.
But now, with hundreds of thousands Somalis starving to death as they take the treacherous journey from their drought-stricken homes to overcrowded refugee camps in neighboring Kenya and Ethiopia, humanitarian agencies say there is no choice but to do whatever is necessary to save lives, even if that means dealing with Shabaab.
"While U.N. humanitarian agencies have welcomed the recent statement by Al Shabaab requesting international assistance in southern Somalia, the inability of food agencies to work in the region since early 2010 has prevented the U.N. from reaching the very hungry -- especially children -- and has contributed to the current crisis," said Bowden.
Some organizations have been openly critical of the U.S., saying that it's position is partially responsible for the current disaster.
Bowden told reporters today in Nairobi, Kenya, that the United States' sanctions against al Shabaab "complicates efforts through increased levels of suspicion and motivation so it may lead to access problems in parts. We hope there is an understanding that this is a humanitarian imperative to get assistance in."