Gov't appeals for assistance as drought hits the south

A serious drought has taken hold in parts of southern Somalia and thousands of people are facing significant water and food shortages, a minister of the transitional government told IRIN on Thursday.

Muhammad Abdi Hayir, Minister for Information of the Transitional Federal Government (TFG), said the drought was most acute in the regions of Gedo and Middle Juba and parts of Lower Juba.

"The poor Gu rains [of March to June], coupled with the almost total collapse of the rural water system, were the cause of an impending crisis," he said.

A 200-liter drum of water was selling at around 200,000 shillings (about US $20), a sum of money the majority of the population cannot afford, he said.

He added that if the Deyr rains [normally due in October/November] are poor or late, "then we have a serious crisis on our hands". Reports the government was getting indicated "large numbers of livestock and a number of people have already died", he said.

The UN World Food Programme (WFP) Deputy Country Director for Somalia, Leo Van der Velden, said aid agencies were in the process of delivering 2,400 tonnes of food to some 225,000 beneficiaries there, but insecurity and logistical problems had hampered operations.

"We are aware of the situation. It is aggravated by civil strife. In Lower Juba, for example, you have marginalised groups which are vulnerable," der Velden told IRIN on Thursday. "Aid agencies do not have complete access to these people due to insecurity and logistical problems."

Hayir said the livelihood of most of the people in Somalia revolved around livestock and if livestock, already weakened by lack of water and pasture, started dying "then it is only a matter of time before people start dying".

The deteriorating situation was already leading to the massive movement of people and livestock toward the river Juba area, which would cause environmental problems and could also contribute to insecurity.

"Somalis are nomads and most often fight over water and grazing," he added.

The TFG was calling on the international community to assist before the situation turned into a catastrophe, he said. Trucking water to the most affected districts should be a priority, as well as feeding those who had lost their livestock, he stressed.

Der Velden said efforts to deliver food aid had also been affected by recent hijackings of ships off the Somali coast. Two of the ships had been chartered by WFP to carry food to Somalia.

"We had problems with the vessels that were hijacked, but we are looking for alternatives, including bringing in food by road," he added.