Why Somalia Faces Famine Again

Here are some numbers to put into context the scale of the crisis facing Somalia: 730 children have died in food and nutrition centres across the country between January and July; 213,000 people are at “imminent risk” of dying; 22 million people are at risk of starvation.

This is all before famine has been formally declared in the region. To meet that criteria, over 20% of households will face an extreme lack of food, 30% of children will be acutely malnourished and over two people in every 10,000 will die “due to outright starvation or to the interaction of malnutrition and disease”.

This is nothing new for Somalia. The 2011 famine killed more than 250,000 people in the country. Roughly half of those deaths happened before the official declaration. Reports coming out of the country suggest that the situation now is considerably worse. Famine declarations are rare, so the grave warnings from the UN and other humanitarian organisations are dire signs of what’s to come.

Famine has already taken hold in two areas in the Baidoa and Burhakaba districts, in south-central Somalia. Children will be at the sharp end – in the last famine half of those who died were younger than five. This time Unicef estimates that 386,000 children are at risk of death without immediate treatment. More than half of children aged under five are facing acute malnutrition, which includes one in six (513,500) who are suffering from the most deadly form of malnutrition.

Young children often die on the journeys their families take to find help. Unicef’s deputy regional director, Rania Dagas, said: “I couldn’t get out of my head the tiny mounds of ground marking children’s graves.” How have things gotten this bad?

The Climate Crisis

People in Somalia are accustomed to dry spells and drought, but the latest one has left the country on its knees. Agro-pastoralists and farmers who have survived countless dry seasons are unable to produce sufficient crops – the extreme heat has also killed 3 million livestock. And things aren’t getting any better. The latest outlook by the ICPAC climate centre shows a high likelihood of a fifth failed rainy season, meaning the country has been in a state of perpetual drought since 2020.

Scientists from Nasa say that the drought has been caused by the La Niña weather pattern in the Pacific Ocean – which refers to the wide-range cooling of ocean surface temperatures – and the climate crisis. Rainfall has been declining in east Africa for decades as a result of the climate crisis, and this has been made even worse during the La Niña event. At the same time increasing temperatures in the air, caused by human-made global warming, are making droughts even worse on the ground as the atmosphere pulls moisture from the plants and soil, making it difficult to farm.

Even though collectively Somalia, Ethiopia and Kenya emit just 0.1% of total global CO2 emissions, they have been paying the highest price for the climate crisis. Alongside the drought there have been a series of other extreme weather events like cyclones and flash floods, as well as locust infestations: all of these are exacerbated and made more likely by the climate crisis. The frequency of these events makes it almost impossible to rebuild.

Food Prices

Two years of a pandemic and severe drought has meant that food prices in Somalia were already at record highs. Then Russia invaded Ukraine and things got even worse. This is because since the civil war began in the early 1990s, Somalia has become highly dependent on food imports: 90% of its wheat was sourced from Russia and Ukraine and 60% of its overall food supply is imported, leaving the country exceptionally vulnerable to the fluctuations in the global economy.

The price of a kilogram of rice has more than doubled from 75 cents to (USD)$2. Three litres of cooking oil rose from $4.50 to $9.50. Poor people in Somalia were already spending 60-80% of their income on food, so these kinds of increases price many of them out of eating altogether.

Past Famines

Famines have long lasting impacts – there are people still in camps in Somalia who were displaced during the famines in 2011 and 2017. The consequences of these traumas go far beyond the starvation conditions that many Somalis have lived through. Data from the IRC shows that gender-based violence including FGM, intimate partner violence and exploitation increases during times of crisis.

The Somali government has been sounding the alarm for months, issuing a Drought Declaration in April, but little international action has been taken until very recently. The UN has now reached 70% of its fundraising target and there are more and more people on the ground trying to reach remote areas and deliver assistance.

However this is, at best, a short term fix. Unless decisive action is taken to deal with the climate crisis, these droughts will continue to lead to unfathomable levels of human suffering.

- The World Students Society thanks author Nimo Omer, The Guardian.


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