NAIROBI, Kenya – The 2011 Somali famine killed an estimated 260,000 people, half of them age 5 and under, according to a new report to be published this week that more than doubles previous death toll estimates, officials told The Associated Press.
The aid community believes that tens of thousands of people died needlessly because the international community was slow to respond to early signs of approaching hunger in East Africa in late 2010 and early 2011.
The toll was also exacerbated by extremist militants from al-Shabab who banned food aid deliveries to the areas of south-central Somalia that they controlled. Those same militants have also made the task of figuring out an accurate death toll extremely difficult.
A Western official briefed on the new report – the most authoritative to date – told AP that it says 260,000 people died, and that half the victims were 5 and under. Two other international officials briefed on the report confirmed that the toll was in the quarter-million range. All three insisted they not be identified because they were not authorized to share the report's contents before it is officially released.
The report is being made public Thursday by FEWSNET, a famine early warning system funded by the U.S. government's aid arm USAID, and by the Food Security and Nutrition Analysis Unit - Somalia, which is funded by the U.S. and Britain.
A previous estimate by the U.K. government said between 50,000 and 100,000 people died in the famine. The new report used research conducted by specialists experienced in estimating death tolls in emergencies and disasters. Those researchers relied on food and mortality data compiled by the Food Security and Nutrition Analysis Unit.
Because of the imprecise nature of the data available, the toll remains only an estimate.
When asked about the report, Somalia Health Minister Maryan Qasim Ahmed said she didn't want to comment until she read it because of questions she had about the accuracy of the figures.
Sikander Khan, the head of UNICEF in Somalia, also said he needed to look at the report's methodology before commenting specifically. But he said generally that the response to the famine was problematic because it depended on political dynamics. He said the international community needs to change the way it classifies famines.
"You lose children by the time people realize it's met the established definition of famine," he said.
Marthe Everard, the World Health Organization's country director for Somalia, said she has not yet seen the report but would not be surprised by such a high death toll.
"The Somalis themselves were shocked about the number of women and children dying," she said, adding later: "It should give us lessons learned, but what do we do with it? How do we correct it for next time?"
Much of the aid response came after pictures of weak and dying children were publicized by international media outlets around the time the U.N. declared a famine in July 2011.
"By then you are too late," Everard said.
A report last year by the aid groups Oxfam and Save the Children found that rich donor nations waited until the crisis was in full swing before donating a substantial amount of money. The report also said aid agencies were slow to respond.
Quicker action wouldn't have prevented the deaths in areas controlled by al-Shabab. The militant group prevented many men from leaving the famine-hit region and allowed no emergency food aid in.
Thousands of Somalis walked dozens or hundreds of miles to reach camps in Kenya and Ethiopia. Countless numbers of families lost children or elderly members along routes that became known as roads of death.