Somali women displaced by severe drought conditions queue to get food handouts

Drought and famine have been a constant factor of Somali life, and the cycles of deprivation seem to worsen. When drought strikes, due to changes in the El Niño/La Niña cycles, or climate change, it affects a land with a rapidly growing population, creating Malthusian calamities, as the land cannot support its human population in such circumstances. The situation has been compounded by the fact that Al-Shabaab, an Islamist militant group, control much of southern Somalia and have banned most aid agencies since 2009.

The Somali population has grown extremely rapidly since independence in 1960. In the fifty year period from 1960 to 2010 the population has grown by 231%, from 2.82 million to 9.36 million (U.N. estimates).[1]

In the summer of 2011 the U.K. Disasters Emergency Committee launched an appeal for funds to aid people who are affected by the severe drought in East Africa. The BBC reported that British aid agencies were preparing to expand their activities in Somalia to help some of the 10 million people at risk of starvation in East Africa.[2]

This followed U.N. reports that in some parts of southern Somalia, 1 in 3 children are malnourished. In August 2010, the national level of acute malnutrition was 15.2% with 16.6% specifically in southern regions. OCHA stated that rapid assessments, conducted in April 2011 in the south, confirmed that a sustained crisis existed, “clearly illustrating the impact of the drought in the south, coupled with insufficient humanitarian assistance.” The OCHA report in June 2011 added that, “Somalia is sliding deeper into crisis due to the combination of drought, increasing food prices and conflict. The eastern Horn of Africa, including Somalia, has now experienced two consecutive seasons of significantly below average rainfall, resulting in failed crop production, significant livestock mortality and record food prices.”[3] The UNHCR warned in July 2011 that high levels of malnutrition, combined with ongoing violence in the war-torn Horn of Africa nation, are threatening, “a human tragedy of unimaginable proportions”.[4]

The U.S.-funded Famine Early Warning Systems Network (FEWSNET) estimates that northeast Kenya, southeast Ethiopia and parts of Somalia — mainly in the centre and south — will be in an “emergency” phase of food insecurity, the stage before “catastrophe or famine”. This year’s drought is not isolated, and its recurrence may be due to the La Nina effect, an abnormal cooling of Pacific waters. The southern United States is also affected by drought.

Al Shabaab has opened the south of Somalia to aid agencies and in mid-July 2011 UNICEF airlifted five metric tons of emergency nutrition supplies and water-related equipment to Baidoa in southern Somalia, as part of its work to assist drought-affected children in the country. “It was successful and it was a good step towards airlifting supplies into Somalia. It is the first in two years,” said Iman Morooka, the UNICEF spokeswoman for Somalia. In 2009 Al Shabaab expelled foreign aid groups, accusing them of being Western spies and Christian crusaders.

People in several countries in East Africa – including Kenya, Ethiopia and Somalia – are facing a desperate crisis caused by prolonged drought, soaring food prices and ongoing conflict in Somalia.

The Dabaab refugee camp across of the border in Kenya was described by Ben Brown in July 2011 as a “vision of hell”. He said that Dabaab is more like a city than a refugee camp, it sprawls for thirty miles and its population is nearly half a million, and hungry and exhausted people are flocking to it from hundreds of miles around.[5]

Famine declared by the United Nations

2oth July 2011, The United Nations  confirmed the existence of famine in two regions of southern Somalia: southern Bakool and Lower Shabelle, and made an urgent appeal for “exceptional efforts” to support Somalis in overcoming that humanitarian crisis, the United Nations Humanitarian Coordinator for Somalia, Mark Bowden, told correspondents today at a Headquarters press conference. he added that, nearly half of the Somali population, or 3.7 million people, were now in crisis, with some 2.8 million in the south. Malnutrition rates in Somalia are currently the highest in the world, peaking at 50 per cent in certain areas in the south. In southern Bakool and Lower Shabelle, acute malnutrition rates exceeded 30 per cent, with deaths among children under 5 years old topping 6 per 10,000 a day in some areas.  In the last few months, tens of thousands of Somalis have died — the majority of the dead being children — from malnutrition and related causes.

Mark Bowden also said that consecutive droughts had affected the country in the last few years, while the ongoing conflict had made it difficult for agencies to operate and access communities in the south of the country. He explained.  “If we don’t act now, famine will spread to all eight regions of southern Somalia within two months, due to poor harvests and infectious disease outbreaks,” he declared.  “We still do not have all the resources for food, clean water, shelter and health services to save the lives of hundreds of thousands of Somalis in desperate need.” He also estimated that $300 million would be needed in the next two months to deal with the famine, and said that, meanwhile, the lack of resources was alarming: “Every day of delay in assistance is literally a matter of life or death for children and their families in the famine-affected areas.” Bowden also said that although the United Nations humanitarian agencies welcomed the recent request by Al-Shabaab for international assistance in southern Somalia, the inability of food agencies to work in the region since early 2010 had prevented the United Nations from reaching those who needed food — particularly children – which had contributed to the current crisis. [6]

It was since become clear that Al-Shabaab is still seriously restricting the activities of aid agencies; on the 21st July their spokesman Sheik Ali Mohamud Rage said that aid agencies the group had previously banned are still barred from operating in areas under its control. He called the UN’s declaration of famine in parts of Somalia this week politically motivated and “pure propaganda.” This will mean that only a few aid agencies will be able to respond to crisis in southern Somalia, and the UN World Food Programme, the biggest aid supplier is still banned.[7]

(c) Idarat Maritime Ltd. 2011

For more information:

Photo: Reuters/Feisal Omar – July 7, 2011 with the kind permission of Alert.Net

[1] UNICEF, accessed 22 August 2010

[2] “Horn of Africa drought: UK charities boost Somalia aid”, BBC, 13 July 2011,

[3] Weekly Humanitarian Report OCHA, Issue #25, 17-24 June 2011, UNOCHA Somalia, Nairobi

[4] Zoe Flood – “UN refugee agency warns of crisis ‘of unimaginable proportions’ in Somalia drought”, The Daily Telegraph, London, 6 July 2011,

[5] Ben Brown – “Horn of Africa drought: A Vision of Hell at the Dabeeb refugee camp”, The Daily Telegraph, 9 July 2011

[6] Press Conference on Somalia Famine by United Nations Humanitarian Coordinator, United Nations, New York, 20 July 2011

[7] Abdi Guled – Somali Islamists vow to maintain aid ban, The Independent, London 22 July 2011