Dry weather leaves half of the population in need of aid, with 2.9m at risk of starvation.
Amina Jamila has been locked in a battle for survival for months. When her family’s 400 goats and camels started dying in droves after rains failed for the third consecutive year, she and her husband trekked 30 kilometres with their five children and remaining animals across an arid, featureless region of Somalia.
They now live in a homemade shelter of sticks and tarpaulins in a camp that is home to 450 families and growing every day as more people seek sanctuary from Somalia’s worst drought in decades. Animal carcases litter the landscape around the makeshift homes in Uusgare, a village in the Puntland region.
“If it wasn’t for the help of friends and family some of us would be dead,” Ms Jamila says. “We are used to dry conditions, but we’ve never seen anything like this before.”
Elders at the camp say the conditions are the driest since the 1950s and they have called the drought Lagamalito, meaning “the worst” in Somali. More than half of the 12m population are in need of assistance, with 2.9m at serious risk of famine if rains due in April are not better than average, the UN warns. That number is rising by the week as people’s animals, in most cases their only assets, die.
“Most people here have lost about 90 per cent of their livestock,” says Abshir Hirsi Ali, village chief. “For the pastoralists that means they’ve lost everything.”
About 260,000 Somalis died during the previous famine five years ago, and the Red Cross is already reporting drought related deaths in northern parts of the country. The number of severely malnourished children referred last month to the stabilisation centre at the main hospital in Garowe, Puntland’s capital, is 70 per cent higher than a few months ago, medics say.
Mohamed Abdullahi Mohamed, who was elected last week as Somalia’s new president, has said preventing famine is a priority. But he faces myriad challenges in a country that has had no effective government for 25 years and where corruption is rampant. One diplomat says sometimes only one eighth of the aid reaches its target.
Aid agencies are already warning that conditions risk deteriorating because of a lack of rain. The situation is exacerbated by the threat posed by alShabaab, a militant Islamist group with ties to alQaeda, which controls some of the worstaffected areas.
The drought is also blighting stretches of neighbouring Kenya, which declared it a national disaster on Friday, and Ethiopia. Neither of these countries is considered at risk of famine as, unlike Somalia, their governments have mobilised resources to help communities.
Richard Trenchard, head of the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation in Somalia, says safety nets that exist elsewhere to counter the impact of drought are absent in the Horn of Africa nation.
“You’re missing out the regional authority and the national authority to help you when things start to go really bad,” he says. “The institutional vacuum has simply stripped that away.”
Thirteen famine warnings were ignored in 2011 and by the time the response was mobilised 140,000 people had died.
“We need to act decisively, we need to act massively, and we need to act now if we are to prevent a repeat of the awful scenes of 2011,” says Fatoumata NafoTraoré, Africa director for the International Federation of the Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement.
Mr Trenchard says early warning systems have improved, pointing to monitoring of prices of labour and locally produced food, as well as the number of animals being offered for export.
Puntland, Bay and Galmudug are the regions particularly at risk. Even if aid agencies mobilise the $300m they have appealed for by April, the are likely to be called upon again in an area experts say is a victim of climate change and perennially at risk of food shortages.
“Before 2004 we used to have a bad drought every 10 years, now it is every five,” Mr Ali says.
At the camp in Uusgare, the few officials who are present admit their resources are stretched.
“We’re doing what we can, but we just don’t have enough money,” says Abdul Aziz Hussein, of the state government’s humanitarian coordination agency.
“The situation’s getting worse and worse and if more help doesn’t come quickly we’ll be digging a lot of graves.”
Nearby, another displaced woman, Bishaaro, barely stops coughing as she breastfeeds her threedayold son, surrounded by her five other children.
“I’m just living from day to day at the moment,” she says. “When I learnt I was pregnant I never thought I would give birth here [in the camp].”
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