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Somalia’s record drought kills tens of thousands

Ongoing violence complicates aid groups’ response

Residents of an Internal Displaced Persons camp in Baidoa, Somalia on April 11 Getty Images/Photo by Hassan Ali Elmi/AFP

Somalia’s record drought kills tens of thousands

Makeshift shelters built from wooden sticks, corrugated iron sheets, and tarps are springing up around the city of Baidoa in Somalia’s South West state. Residents who live in conflict-prone areas where water sources have dried up are trekking for miles to the state’s largest city, hoping to find aid.

Kevin Mackey, World Vision’s national director in Somalia visited a displacement camp in Baidoa back in December. “Children unable to keep up with their parents, parents unable to carry them, parents not having access to any carts, and then children ultimately succumbing to their weakened states and then having to be buried along the way,” he recounted. “I think that’s a story that has happened many times over the past year.”

Ongoing drought and fighting has gripped Somalia, displacing more than 3.8 million people. The United Nations estimated last month that about 43,000 people died last year from the drought. Aid groups warn that the country’s protracted conflict is further complicating their ability to respond to humanitarian needs. The UN projects at least 18,000 more famine-related deaths in the first six months of this year.

In March, the United Nations, the Somali Health Ministry, and the World Health Organization jointly released the drought-related deaths estimate. The report said half of the deaths were likely among children younger than 5.

More than 6 million people now face acute food shortages in the East African nation, where the drought has killed millions of livestock and destroyed crops. Across the wider Horn of Africa region, the current rainy season is expected to fail for the sixth year in a row, causing crippling effects in Kenya and Ethiopia, as well.

During a surprise visit to Somalia on Tuesday, UN Secretary-General António Guterres raised the alarm. He noted that only 15 percent of the $2.6 billion appeal for Somalia has been funded. He called for international solidarity “to prevent malnutrition and displacement, to save lives.”

Violence still plagues Somalia decades after a civil war that created a power vacuum. Several armed nationalist groups sprang up and continue to control parts of the country. At least 660,000 people live in areas controlled by armed groups. Last August, the Somali government launched an offensive against the al-Qaeda-linked terror group al-Shabab. By March, the military claimed it had killed more than 3,000 al-Shabaab insurgents and regained control of 70 towns and villages.

In February, fighting flared between troops belonging to Somalia’s breakaway region of Somaliland and local militias in the northern city of Las Anod. The UN refugee agency said that, due to the violence, nearly 100,000 people have fled the region since last month and crossed into neighboring Ethiopia.

Others fled to camps in Garowe, the capital of Puntland state. Abdikarim Mohamed, the Somali communication lead with the International Committee of the Red Cross, said more people continue to arrive in the city. During a trip to Garowe this week, he met a mother whose two children got lost in the crowd while fleeing. Herders who lost their crops have also sought shelter at another camp in the city. “Some have seen all three droughts and have been displaced for years,” Mohamed said.

Mackey said the conflict affects the global response to Somalis’ needs. “Because it happens outside of the government-controlled areas, many of the mechanisms that the humanitarian system uses to gauge whether a famine has been occurring have not been sensitive enough,” he said.

In Somalia, aid groups are finding ways to work around the conflict. Alyona Synenko, the Africa spokesperson with the International Committee of the Red Cross, said the organization’s response includes registering tracing requests and making phone calls to help reunite separated families. The organization also works with local partners to coordinate medical emergency response for victims of violence in conflict areas like Las Anod. Even that response poses a risk in conflict zones.

“There was a post on social media, where some people were calling on the communities to stop ICRC convoys because we are spies,” Synenko said, adding that the organization issued a statement clarifying its role as a humanitarian group and calling for free access. “It’s really important that humanitarian aid can’t be politicized.”

World Vision also scaled up its response to include emergency cash support for communities cut off by the conflict. “We’ve been working with local communities to negotiate some access to people that are living in non-government-controlled areas and have them come in from those areas to be registered for cash assistance,” Mackey explained.

But he says more can be done. Back in 2011, another famine in Somalia left nearly 260,000 people dead, more than half of them children younger than 5. He sees the same dynamics playing out again as families walk in search of aid, many dying along the way.

Mackey said humanitarian organizations should keep working on understanding local contexts and gaining access to the most vulnerable populations. Such efforts will help to frame lasting support, he explained, since one successful rainy season would not fade the effect of the yearslong dry spell.

“We pray that the drought has broken and that maybe the sixth rainy season will be successful,” Mackey said. “But even if it is, we still have a long way to go and there’s still a lot of assistance to be provided.”

Onize Ohikere

Onize is WORLD’s Africa reporter and deputy global desk chief. She is a World Journalism Institute graduate and earned a journalism degree from Minnesota State University–Moorhead. Onize resides in Abuja, Nigeria.


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