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Somalia Parched By Drought And Politics

LINDA WERTHEIMER, host: A severe drought in East Africa has left millions of people facing starvation in Kenya, Ethiopia and Somalia. Somalis are the hardest hit. Their situation is even more desperate because many live under the control of the Islamist rebel militia, al-Shabaab. Until this past week, al-Shabaab banned global aid groups. Now the militants want them to come in and feed the hungry.

One of those aid groups is Mercy Corps. Jeremy Konyndyk is its co-director of policy and advocacy. He joins us now in our Washington studios. Welcome.


WERTHEIMER: Now, it seems to me that we hear very often of the deadly combination of drought and politics in the horn of Africa. And so many times international aid is needed there. You were in Somalia recently, I understand.


WERTHEIMER: Can you explain why this situation is different?

KONYNDYK: What distinguishes the situation at the moment is that the drought conditions we're seeing now are unlike anything we've seen in 60 years. So to put that in perspective, the droughts that really kind of penetrated the American consciousness, the drought in Ethiopia in the mid-'80s, the drought in Somalia in the early '90s, those were bad. This is worse, or at least on track to be worse.

WERTHEIMER: And how are people there coping with it?

KONYNDYK: They're not and that's the problem. What we're seeing is that due to this drought, two cycles of rain have largely failed, which means crops are failing; that means that animal herds who are dependent on rain for their water and for their foraging are dying off. When I was out there, I was told stories by our staff of animals that are so desperate to forage that they're eating each other's fur. I'm told that our teams have seen camels dying of thirst. And people lack the availability of food locally. They lack the ability to pay for food through the markets and so they simply don't have options for feeding themselves apart from international assistance or trying to flee to another country.

WERTHEIMER: Are we talking about wholesale death from starvation in Southern Somalia now?

KONYNDYK: We are at that point now in Southern Somalia, yes. The people who are coming across the border to the refugee camps in Kenya and Ethiopia are among the most desperate refugee populations that any of our staff or in my own experience that we've seen anywhere. We're seeing rates of child malnutrition amongst those coming across the border of 30, 40, and 50 percent. That's absolutely unheard of. It's just unheard of.

And what is really staggering is to think that generally speaking, people who can make it out are not the worst off. For everyone who makes it across the border, there is probably an equal number who are too poor or too weak to move within inside Somalia and simply have no option. And those people we can be quite confident are dying as we speak.

WERTHEIMER: The Islamist al-Shabaab militants banned aid workers from the parts of Somalia that are under their control. That happened in 2009. Presumably the situation could be eased now that al-Shabaab has said that it would lift the ban on aid workers and it would welcome assistance in feeding the hungry. The secretary of state, Hillary Clinton, has ordered a coordinated U.S. response. What does that mean?

KONYNDYK: Well, we're hopeful that this will be a game changer. For the past several years U.S. assistance to Somalia has been fairly low, both because of the political and security difficulties in the south that have been created by Shabaab, but also because U.S. law prohibits material support to terrorists and has a very broad definition of that.

WERTHEIMER: A broad definition of terrorists?

KONYNDYK: Of material support. And so for the last several years, the U.S. government has been very, very, very cautious, I would say overly cautious about the amount of aid that it's willing to send in - even to areas of Somalia that al-Shabaab does not control. So what we would look for now is some signal from the administration that in response to Shabaab's apparent willingness to let aid groups back in, that they would also be willing to use a safety valve that exists within U.S. law for allowing aid to these sorts of environments under really extreme circumstances.

WERTHEIMER: And if the United States does not do that, what about the non-governmental organizations like Mercy Corps? Can they pick up the slack?

KONYNDYK: We're going to have to see how serious Shabaab is about letting us back in and what sort of conditions might be attached to that. If we are able to go back in, but U.S. assistance is not there, it will make a difference, but not enough of a difference. The U.S. is the largest donor of global food aid. And when the U.S. doesn't contribute robustly to a response, there aren't too many other donors in the world who can pick up that slack.

WERTHEIMER: Jeremy Konyndyk is co-director of policy and advocacy for the global aid agency Mercy Corps. Thank you very much.

KONYNDYK: Thank you.


WERTHEIMER: You're listening to WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.