Somalia has not yet fallen into famine but several parts of the country are in danger of it in the coming months, according to a new food security report on the Horn of Africa’s worst drought in decades.
The report released Tuesday by United Nations and other experts says more than 8 million people are badly food insecure as Somalia faces “an unprecedented level of need” after five consecutive failed rainy seasons and “exceptionally high” food prices. Thousands of people have died.
The report says the “most likely scenario” will see more than 700,000 people in famine between April and June of next year in two parts of Somalia’s southwestern Bay region and among displaced people in the town of Baidoa and the capital, Mogadishu.
Several other parts of central and southern Somalia also will see an increased risk of famine if a sixth straight rainy season fails early next year, the report says.
Food security experts earlier this year warned of famine in parts of Somalia by the end of 2022 without an increase in international humanitarian assistance. Humanitarian workers say the war in Ukraine has diverted the funding of some key donors. Hours after the new report was released Tuesday, the United States announced $411 million in additional funding for Somalia’s crisis.
Famine is the extreme lack of food and a significant death rate from outright starvation or malnutrition combined with diseases like cholera. A formal famine declaration means data shows more than a fifth of households have extreme food gaps, more than 30% of children are acutely malnourished and over two people out of 10,000 are dying every day.
But such data in Somalia are incomplete because of insecurity in some of the worst-affected areas, and some humanitarian groups assert that famine is even now well under way. “Famine is already present and killing tens of thousands silently in Somalia,” the Norwegian Refugee Council said in a statement, claiming the new report “may lead the international community into further complacency.” The last famine in Somalia in 2011 killed over a quarter-million people, it said.
“They should not wait for the famine to be declared, we have been telling them,” Islamic Relief’s country director, Aliow Mohamed, said of governments and other donors in an interview last week. “If the world only waits for famine to be declared (to help), that will be very disheartening.”
Neighboring Ethiopia and Kenya also are struggling in the drought, but the new report offers a grim look at Somalia’s multiple crises. Insecurity caused by the al-Qaida-affiliated al-Shabab extremist group limits access to hungry people, and its fighters have destroyed water wells and food sources in retaliation for its losses in a new government offensive.
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Meanwhile, food and fuel prices in Somalia have soared, part of a global problem. And crops have suffered, making food even more scarce for the months to come.
“Many households have already lost or sold their last breeding animal,” the new report says. Millions of livestock in the country of pastoralists have died, leaving families without their traditional source of wealth and health.
The Islamic Relief country director described the flow of desperate people arriving in Baidoa, with some walking hundreds of kilometers (miles) to seek help and dozens of families arriving daily. Last month, he met a heavily pregnant woman who had walked barefoot for a week with two of her seven children. They didn’t eat on the journey and hoped to survive in the camps by begging until they could be formally registered for aid. That can take a week, Mohamed said.
“When they come, they just sleep on the ground, no shelter for them, no water for them, no food for them, no health,” he said.
Some Somali officials, including the president, have expressed hesitation over declaring famine amid concerns it would take away from their efforts to show that the country is shedding its past as a failed state.
Whether or not there’s a formal famine, “the needs are clearly there,” Kev Esteban Del Castillo, the famine response manager in Somalia for Catholic Relief Services, said in an interview last week. “Why can’t we just do something?” He said the U.N. “really mobilizes resources” when a famine is formally declared, and he believes some available funding is being used on other global emergencies until then.
Del Castillo described a period of more funding for the crisis a few months ago, “but that has slowed down a lot lately” even as more people across Somalia seek help.
“There are people who have given up hope, people who in some periods are used to missing a season or two of rain, but not this,” he said. “They have never seen this.”
A doctor with the Medecins Sans Frontieres (Doctors Without Borders) aid group in Baidoa, Asma Aweis Abdallah, this month said more than 200,000 people had fled to the town this year. She said 500 children a week are admitted into MSF’s feeding programs there, with malnutrition making them more vulnerable to diseases including cholera and measles.
Some of the children are just “skin on bone,” she said. “Being Somali, and this being the situation of the Somali community, it makes me feel very sad.”