Somalia on the brink of famine

May 12, 2017
Written by Clare Ahern
Photo by Kieran McConville

As prolonged drought is wreaking havoc across east Africa, the situation in Somalia is terrifyingly reminiscent of the 2011 famine, when over 250,000 Somalis lost their lives to hunger and disease.

The current drought is the most severe in living memory in Somalia — the result of three failed rains in a row. The situation is so bad that two of the country’s major rivers — the Shabelle and the Jubba — have totally dried up. Even during the famine of 2011, it was still possible to access water by digging into the river beds, but this time the water tables have run completely dry.

Dead livestock

The carcasses of hundreds of dead sheep and goats litter the landscape in Somaliland, as pasture and water supplies disappear. Photo: Kieran McConville

600,000 displaced from their homes

Wells have dried up, crops have failed, and livestock, thirsty and hungry, are dying in massive numbers. Their carcasses lie scattered across the arid country landscape.  Food prices are soaring and people have been left with no choice but to leave their homes and villages in search of food and water. An estimated 600,000 Somalis have been displaced from their homes so far, headed towards the towns and cities. This number is only set to increase.

In Mogadishu, hundreds of families are arriving at the displacement camps each week, having walked huge distances for days, sometimes weeks, in urgent search of food and water.

A harrowing journey

Abdullahi* is one of the many people who have undertaken the long trek. It took him nine days to reach Mogadishu. Back home, all thirty of his cattle died as a result of the drought. With his livelihood destroyed, and food and water in short supply, Abdullahi made the decision to leave his village and seek treatment for his four year old son, Abhsir*. His two other children remained at home with their uncle.

Father and son seeking treatment

Abdullahi* with his son, Abhsir* (4), at a nutrition center run by Concern Worldwide in Mogadishu in Somalia. Photo: Kieran McConville

The journey is filled with unimaginable suffering for some. Aayan* and her baby Aadan* arrived at a Concern nutrition centre in late March. They made it there after a harrowing 37-mile trek. Aayan lost two of her children along the way. There was just nothing she could do to save them.

The severity of this drought means the worst is yet to come

When Aadan was assessed by our team, he weighed only 20 pounds. He is three years old. Suffering from loss of appetite, edema and skin disease, he was diagnosed as severely malnourished and has been admitted for the care he so urgently needed.

Woman with baby

Ayaan* (28) with her three year old son, Aaden*, at Concern Worldwide’s nutrition center in Mogadishu, Somalia. Photo: Kieran McConville

Disease spreading quickly

There are hundreds of thousands of children who are suffering like Aadan and Abshir. And in drought conditions like this, hunger is not the only risk to peoples’ lives. A lack of water leads to poor sanitation and disease spreads quickly. Cholera is increasing at a worrying rate and according to the World Health Organisation (WHO), over 25,000 cases have been recorded in Somalia since the beginning of the year. The fatality rate is reported to be 2.1%, which is double the emergency threshold rate. Under ordinary circumstances, cholera can be easily treated. But malnutrition and dehydration weaken people’s ability to fight it.

Worst is yet to come

Lessons learned from the past have so far prevented loss of life on the scale of 2011. Early warning systems established in the wake of that devastating famine have allowed for earlier preparations this time around. But ongoing conflict makes it very difficult to reach people in some of the worst affected areas. And the severity of this drought means the worst is yet to come.

More than 350,000 children under the age of five are acutely malnourished

Minor rains have recently been reported in parts of the country. These could signal the beginning of the Gu rains which typically fall between April — June. It is too early to tell if they will be sufficient to bring any relief to the millions of Somalis whose lives are at risk from hunger and disease. But even if the rains do arrive, it would take months for crops to grow and even longer for families to rebuild their livelihoods.

Displaced families collect SIM cards for emergency cash phone transfers from Concern Worldwide at a displacement camp in Mogadishu, Somalia. Photo: Kieran McConville

Threat of famine is looming large

Some 6.2 million people do not have enough food to eat and are in urgent need of food assistance — that is over half the country’s population. And more than 350,000 children under the age of five are acutely malnourished. So far, humanitarian aid has helped to minimize the loss of life. But the sheer scale of this crisis is overwhelming and the threat of famine is looming large.

How Concern is helping

Woman hands out food

A nutrition center run by Concern Worldwide in Mogadishu, Somalia. Photo: Kieran McConville

We have massively scaled-up our operations to respond to the increasing numbers of people who need urgent assistance. Our experienced team on the ground are providing those most in need with clean water and cash transfers to buy food. We are distributing essential shelter and household items to people living in informal displacement camps. And we are providing life-saving nutrition support to malnourished children.

*Names changed for security. 


Help us bring hope to families like those facing hunger and drought  in East Africa