3 December 2008
Press Conference

Department of Public Information • News and Media Division • New York


Without an effective response to the deepening humanitarian crisis in Somalia, the population there could face “total destitution”, said Mark Bowden, United Nations Humanitarian Coordinator for Somalia, warning that “this is now a make or break year for Somalia”.

The situation in the country already constituted the world’s second largest humanitarian crisis, and was one of its most politically complex, he told correspondents at a Headquarters press conference this afternoon of the crisis, which began nearly 17 years ago. 

Now was a particularly difficult stage, owing to the dramatic effects of three years of drought, he said.  Rates of acute malnutrition were on the rise in several areas and huge losses of assets, like livestock, had occurred.  Thousands of people were displaced each week and Somalia now had one of the highest levels of internal displacement in the world, with over 1 million persons dislocated.

“If we don’t respond effectively this year, we will have a destitute population on our hands, needing ever increasing amounts of assistance,” he warned.  In the past year, relief levels had been kept relatively high, despite security issues.  Unlike certain times in the past, humanitarian agencies were now able to get food to the 3.2 million individuals in the country who needed it most, and had succeeded in opening an increasing amount of nutrition and feeding centres.  However, the number of people in need was on the rise.

Yesterday, a new consolidated appeal for Somalia was launched in Nairobi, Kenya, Mr. Bowden said.  At roughly $900 million, it was significant in size, but proportionate to the 77 per cent increase in the number of beneficiaries it was meant to serve.  Donors needed to take a broader view of the complex humanitarian situation on the ground to allow for more varied forms of assistance, including asset preservation and assistance projects designed to increase the level of cash-for-work schemes.  Cash-for-work projects, such as canal clearing or other forms of reconstruction, could have a significant impact on the population, for example, by increasing the availability of water or other goods. 

Asked about the effect of piracy on food aid and other forms of assistance, Mr. Bowden said that, to date, naval escorts had effectively protected food aid delivery and, while overall maritime security was important, those escorts needed to be maintained to ensure that shipments continued.  The main impact piracy had on humanitarian assistance was its potential to cause further political collapse in Puntland, and the attendant effects of such a situation.  Organizations like the Food and Agriculture Organization were working to address some of the root causes of piracy, such as uncontrolled fishing along Somalia’s coast and its impact on the livelihoods of local fishermen.  An international conference scheduled for 10 and 11 December in Nairobi would also attempt to address those issues, as well as regional and international measures required to effectively respond to the problem.

Responding to numerous questions on the effect of political turmoil on humanitarian operations, he said that both the Government and the main opposition had a better understanding now of the need to protect the population.  While a variety of individuals and groups continued to cause problems for humanitarian relief workers -– either by setting up roadblocks or through other, more aggressive, acts -– the Djibouti peace process was helping to improve the situation.  The Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs negotiated with all relevant parties on the ground to ensure that assistance would be delivered in the most timely and efficient manner possible, and it had appealed to the Government and rebel groups both within and outside of the peace process to recognize the primacy of humanitarian aid and to allow for its free passage. 

On the question of the migration of Somalis to the Gulf region and the responsibility of Gulf States to address the issue, Mr. Bowden said he would like to see greater support from those States, although, in the past, financial support from the Gulf region to the peace process had been abused and, as such, there was a degree of mistrust surrounding the issue.  To help eliminate that, it was necessary to focus more on humanitarian support, rather than on political aspects.

In closing, Mr. Bowden underscored the need for all parties concerned to understand the full complexity of the Somali crisis and to confront, head on, the serious problems facing the country.  While there had been an adequate and well-maintained level of support in the past, only consistent international support and engagement in the future would prevent further suffering for Somalis.

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For information media • not an official record