The famine is over in Somalia thanks to good rains, a bumper harvest and donor aid, but the next 90 days will be critical to ensure the country does not slip back into extreme hunger, United Nations officials have said.
"There is still a crisis in Somalia that affects 2.34 million people with high risks of malnutrition and insecurity," the new director general of the Food and Agricultural Organisation (FAO), José Graziano da Silva, said, announcing the end to a famine declared last July.
"If we do not continue to support these people, especially in the three months until the rainy season in April, these people will not survive, we will have famine back and the farmers will not have the seeds and fertilizers they need," the former Brazilian special minister of food security told reporters in Nairobi.
Good deyr rains between October and December, coupled with agricultural and humanitarian aid, yielded a harvest that was double the average of the past 17 years, although it is only a secondary crop. The long gu rains are due to start in April, heralding the main planting season, but food stocks are likely to decline before then.
"The gains are considerable but they are also very fragile," said Mark Bowden, the UN humanitarian co-ordinator for Somalia. "We have a temporary respite … the humanitarian situation remains critical."
The announcement came on the release of a new report by the FAO-managed food security and nutrition analysis unit and USAID's famine early warning systems network, which said the number of people in need of emergency humanitarian assistance had dropped from 4 million to 2.34 million, or 31% of the population.
Of these, 1.7 million are in the south, largely controlled by the Islamist rebels of al-Shabaab, which has expelled many international aid agencies. This week the rebels banned the International Committee of the Red Cross.
The new report also warned that an estimated 325,000 acutely malnourished children are still at risk, with 70% of these in southern areas.
The famine claimed tens of thousands of lives in Somalia, more than half of them children under five. One British estimate says that between 50,000 and 100,000 people died across the drought-prone Horn of Africa, where 9.5 million people still need assistance.
"We have three months, let's say, to work to avoid another possible famine from a drought. We cannot avoid the drought … but we can avoid famine from drought," Graziano da Silva said, stressing the need for long-term measures to strengthen agricultural capacity.
The FAO, which distributed seeds, fertilisers and other inputs to farmers, is trying to create resilience among farmers so that they can make the most of the harvest after the April rains. Among the schemes used are cash-for-work and food-voucher programmes.
Oxfam country director Senait Gebregziabher said the world should not turn its back on Somalia despite the improvement.
"Insecurity is already disrupting the supply of aid to tens of thousands of people at a critical time in the crisis. The gains made so far could be reversed if the conflict worsens, if access becomes more difficult than it already is or if there is a reduction in aid from the international community," she said.
Al-Shabaab, which professes allegiance to al-Qaida, is hostile to foreign intervention of any kind in Somalia. It is fighting Kenyan troops in the south and the increased militarisation in this region has made aid agencies' work ever more difficult.
Britain has made Somalia something of a foreign policy priority, appointing its first ambassador to the country in 21 years during a visit by the foreign secretary, William Hague, to the capital Mogadishu on Thursday. Britain will also host a global conference later this month on Somalia, described by officials as "the world's most failed state".