“Highest levels of malnutrition in the world”

“Somalia has the highest levels of malnutrition in the world”, with up to 300,000 children acutely malnourished annually, Hilde Frarfjord Johnson, UNICEF's deputy executive director, said.

Anaemic mothers and inadequate nutrition were the main causes of high malnutrition levels in the war-torn country, she said, with most cases in south-central Somalia.

Global Acute Malnutrition (GAM) rates of more than 20 percent have been reported, with the figure rising to 28 percent in some areas. GAM rates of 30 percent indicate a famine situation.

"Despite the shrinking humanitarian space ... we are still providing assistance ... it is difficult but not impossible," Johnson said on 4 December in Nairobi after a visit to Somalia. There are 220 therapeutic feeding centres across the country.

"There is also a severe child protection crisis which is happening on a large scale ... the current security environment has aggravated this," she said.

According to UNICEF, more than 70 percent of the population lacks reliable access to safe water.

The agency sounded a positive note, however, saying malaria cases had fallen from 17 to 6.9 percent while polio had remained under control since 2007.

Ahmed Dini of Peaceline, a Somali civil society group that monitors children, told IRIN the crisis was affecting women and children the most.

"In all aspects of our tragedy women and children bear the brunt."

He said more and more children were living alone on the streets with no support. "Many of these children have lost their parents or were separated [from them] and cannot find them."

He said traditional support networks that used to assume responsibility for orphaned children seemed to be crumbling under the enormous economic and security pressures experienced in the country.

Dini said such children were "prime targets for recruitment into armed groups. They have nowhere else to go so they join these groups out of necessity.

"For thousands of children the future is very bleak if the situation does not improve," he added.

For the lives of women and children to improve, Johnson said, progress had to be made in the peace process.

''There is also a severe child protection crisis which is happening on a large scale ... the current security environment has aggravated this''

"It is our view that 2009 is make-or-break security-wise and humanitarian-wise for the Somali people," she said.

"The political process so far has not been in a position to end the violence. We see a disconnect between what is happening at the discussion with what is happening on the ground."

IDPs fleeing south

Meanwhile, refugee camps in Dadaab, north-eastern Kenya, have recorded a heavy influx of Somalis fleeing insecurity in the south.

"There are incredibly difficult operating conditions in the camps," Johnson said. "We need to see more land allocated to expand the camp ... there is reason to believe that many more refugees will cross the border.

"We know it's a stretch for any host country to receive these numbers," she said.

One of the camps, originally intended for 90,000 refugees, is now holding more than 2.5 times the capacity.

The Kenyan government has closed the Kenya-Somalia border to avert possible security threats. However, this is also affecting aid delivery into Somalia.

According to Johnson, there is a need for the facilitation of humanitarian access across the border. "This could even reduce the numbers of those coming through ..."

UNICEF has requested US$80 million to fund its activities in Somalia.