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Famine alert: West Africa still has time to avoid 2012 food crisis

A Famine Early Warning System – which accurately predicted the 2011 drought in the Horn of Africa – warns that millions of West Africans may face a food crisis in 2012.

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As early as August 2010, the FEWS-NET began ringing alarm bells, alerting aid agencies of a looming drought and food crisis in the Horn of Africa region, including Somalia, Ethiopia, and northern Kenya. Nancy Lindborg, USAID’s assistant administrator for democracy, conflict, and humanitarian assistance, testified before Congress in July that USAID began prepositioning supplies in the region, as FEWS had estimated that 2.4 million people would be in crisis.

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But she added, “General insecurity and lawlessness prevents aid workers from reliably reaching more than 60 percent of the people in Somalia who need life-saving assistance,” adding that “threats and unacceptable conditions placed by armed groups, in particular al-Shabab” had prompted the UN’s World Food Programme to suspend its operations in southern Somalia, the worst drought-affected region in the Horn of Africa.

The FEWS predictions were subsequently confirmed, allowing aid agencies to prevent a “worst case scenario,” reported Hamilton Wende in the Monitor this week, as the world concluded climate talks in Durban South Africa this week.

But critics fault a slow response by donors, along with militant bans on foreign relief agencies in southern Somalia, for exacerbating a food crisis that has forced has made 12 million people reliant on food aid, and that could end up killing as many as 750,000, the UN now says.

But suffering is by no means inevitable, says Mamadou Biteye, Oxfam Humanitarian Lead in West Africa, in a statement.

"The situation is looking extremely worrying for millions of people in West Africa, but the worst is not yet inevitable,” says Mr. Biteye. “The crisis has been identified early, and we know that there are cost-effective measures that can be taken now to protect those most vulnerable. This time we can act before the emergency hits."

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