FAO Director-General Jos? Graziano da Silva talking to farmers and pastoralists in Dollow, South Somalia. Photo:FAO/Simon Maina

The United Nations declared an end to famine conditions in Somalia today, but warned that the crisis in the Horn of Africa is not over and requires continued efforts to restore food security and help people resume normal lives.

The number of people in need of emergency humanitarian assistance in Somalia has dropped from 4 million to 2.3 million, or 31 per cent of the population, according to a new report by the United Nations and the United States Government. Additionally, 325,000 children are acutely malnourished.

?Long-awaited rains, coupled with substantial agricultural inputs and the humanitarian response deployed in the last six months, are the main reasons for this improvement,? Jos? Graziano da Silva, Director-General of the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), told a press conference in Nairobi, Kenya, after visiting southern Somalia.

?However, the crisis is not over,? he added. ?It can only be resolved with a combination of rains and continued, coordinated, long-term actions that build up the resilience of local populations and link relief with development.?

A severe drought ravaged the Horn of Africa last year, causing food shortages that claimed the lives of tens of thousands of people in Somalia and led to the declaration of famine by the UN in six areas of the country. At the height of the crisis, 750,000 people in the Horn of Africa were at risk of death.

The number of people still requiring emergency assistance in Somalia, Kenya, Ethiopia and Djibouti, according to FAO, stands at 9.5 million ? down from 13.3 million in September last year.

The FAO-managed Food Security and Nutrition Analysis Unit (FSNAU) and the Famine Early Warning System Network (FEWS NET) of the US Agency for International Development (USAID) attributes the improved situation in Somalia to a combination of adequate rainfall in late 2011 and substantial humanitarian assistance.

This allowed farmers to produce and buy more food, according to a news release issued by FAO, which as part of its emergency response, distributed seeds and fertilizers to Somali farmers. The agency also rehabilitated 594 kilometres of irrigation canals and treated 2.6 million livestock at risk of diseases and infections associated with drought.

In the last six months, FAO, the UN Children?s Fund (UNICEF), the World Food Programme (WFP) and international non-governmental organizations (NGOs) have also operated cash-for-work and food-voucher programmes, instead of relying only on food and input handouts.

?This mix of agricultural and humanitarian interventions has contributed to a significant reduction in local cereal prices in most of the vulnerable areas in the south, improving purchasing power for poor households,? stated the agency.

The UN and its partners stress that the situation is still fragile in southern Somalia, which will continue to be vulnerable to both price and rainfall shocks, and will required sustained attention and assistance.

?We?re very worried that Somalia could easily slip back into very severe conditions unless we manage to maintain the levels of assistance and support to the population that we?re providing,? Mark Bowden, the UN Humanitarian Coordinator for Somalia, said in an interview with UN Radio.

?It could also be affected by more widespread conflict or instability, making it difficult for people to either to return to their agricultural activities in the critical growing period that will start in April, May and affect relief distributions,? he added.

?We mustn?t give the impression that we?ve solved the problem,? stress Mr. Bowden. ?What we?ve done is actually reduced the very high levels of mortality and malnutrition which caused so much suffering. And we are now in the position to make even further progress to help people get back to normal lives. But we?ve still quite a long way from a return to normal and secure situations.?

Meanwhile, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) reported today that expectations of upcoming seasonal rains and improved farming prospects in parts of Somalia have prompted some 7,000 Somali refugees in Ethiopia and Kenya to temporarily return home.

?Some told us they were going back to Somalia to take advantage of upcoming seasonal rains to resume farming in their villages,? UNHCR spokesperson Adrian Edwards told reporters in Geneva. ?They also say they left their women and children in the refugee camps but plan to rejoin them once the harvest is over, as they fear it is not safe to stay in Somalia.?

UNHCR stressed that any return to Somalia must be well-informed and voluntary, and that the country?s situation is not yet conducive for organized repatriation. ?While famine and drought conditions have eased across Somalia, insecurity continues to cause displacement within the country,? noted Mr. Edwards.

More than 293,000 Somali refugees fled conflict and famine into the neighbouring countries of Kenya, Ethiopia, Djibouti and Yemen since January last year.

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