As drought threatens Somalia once more, humanitarians are becoming increasingly concerned about how they will reach food insecure communities living in areas controlled by armed groups.
An estimated 2.4 million Somalis require emergency humanitarian assistance as a result of civil unrest and food insecurity, according to the UN Food Security and Analysis Unit-Somalia. The failure of the short rains (October-December 2010) means over the coming months that that number could increase.
"Somalia is teetering on the brink of a much larger crisis if the next rains, due in April, fail," Baroness Valerie Amos, UN under-secretary-general for humanitarian affairs, said at a press conference in Nairobi following a visit to Somalia. "There is a significant drought-affected population who are difficult to access because they live in areas controlled by armed groups."
Somalia has now been without a functional government for 20 years; several parts of the south are controlled by armed groups such as Al-Shabaab; piracy and inter-clan violence have also hampered the delivery of aid.
According to the UN World Food Programme (WFP), the fluid nature of Somalia's conflict makes delivery of humanitarian assistance even more difficult.
"Conflict tends to flare up in different places at different times, causing displacement and forcing us to pull out from time to time; it's important to be alert and ensure that we continue to get food to those who need it," Peter Smerdon, senior public affairs spokesman for WFP, told IRIN.
In 2005 and 2007, ships carrying WFP food aid were hijacked by pirates off the Somali coast, forcing the organization to use costly naval escorts for its food shipments.
Amos said officials in the self-declared autonomous region of Puntland in the northeast had expressed concern that their borders were increasingly coming under attack from armed groups, further threatening access to ordinarily stable parts of the country.
Another drought is also likely to increase the number of internally displaced persons (IDPs), something aid agencies are keen to avoid; Somalia already has an estimated 1.4 million IDPs, according to the UN.
"We have noticed that people from the rural areas are trickling into the IDP camps in town now - their animals have died and they need food and water," said Sheikh Noor, an elder at an IDP camp in Garowe, Puntland.
According to Mohamed Ahmed Aalin, president of the self-declared autonomous state of Galmudug in central Somalia, pastoralists in his state have already lost 75 percent of their sheep, 50 percent of their cattle and 30 percent of their camels.
Mark Bowden, UN humanitarian coordinator for Somalia, told IRIN it would be important for humanitarian organizations to work smarter in the field in order to provide for those most in need.
"For example, we are doing much more livelihood support - such as maintaining boreholes and cattle vaccination - so that pastoralists do not lose their livelihoods and do not therefore have to leave their communities, which is when we see the large crises happening," he said. "We are also revving up our partnerships with local NGOs who are able to access communities in conflict-affected areas."
He noted that while it was important to engage the various political groups that controlled different parts of Somalia in order to access populations under their control, humanitarians needed to remain impartial and dedicated to providing assistance to those most in need.
"Humanitarians must not become part of the political football, with different groups demanding what they perceive as `their fair share'; instead we must provide assistance according to need," he said.