Xan Rice in Galkayo
Thursday, February 03, 2011
A Somali doctor helps malnourished babies at the Hawa Abdi hospital in Afgoye, where the number of acutely malnourished children has risen to 21%. Photograph: Farah Abdi Warsameh/AP
An estimated 2.4 million people – about a third of Somalia's population – require humanitarian aid after the failure of recent rains, according to the UN. This figure is up from 2 million six months ago.
Though fighting continues in many areas of the country, drought has overtaken insecurity as the main reason for people being displaced.
In the most striking sign of the emerging crisis, the exodus from conflict-racked Mogadishu in recent years has reversed, with thousands of people leaving the countryside for the capital in search of food and water over the past two months. With widespread livestock deaths reported, other families are selling their remaining possessions to raise money to travel to refugee camps in Kenya and Ethiopia.
"It's a very worrying situation, and there may still be worse to come," Mark Bowden, the UN humanitarian co-ordinator for Somalia, has said during a visit to the country. "The high malnutrition rates among children mean that there will be deaths due to the drought."
While the emergency is at an early stage, the UN and aid groups are raising the alarm because of the lack of access to many of the worst-affected areas. The al-Shabaab Islamist group, which controls much of south and central Somalia, has an ideology of self-sufficiency and rejects outside aid. As a result, the World Food Programme has suspended distributions in many areas since last January, including the central Hiraan region, where 70% of the population are "in crisis", according the UN.
With cereal crops failing because of the drought, and little food aid available outside Mogadishu, prices have shot up. In the Juba region maize prices increased by about 80% in November and December, according to the UN's Food Security and Nutrition Analysis Unit (FSNAU), which published its latest report detailing the "severe water shortage" in Somalia last week.
Juba has the greatest proportion of acutely malnourished children – at 30% probably the highest rate anywhere in the world. This is due mainly to a lack of clean water, leading to diarrhoea, and reduced access to milk, as families move their livestock ever further away in search of pasture. Across southern Somalia, one in four children is acutely malnourished.
Grainne Moloney, the FSNAU's chief technical adviser, expressed "great concern" about the situation in Afgoye, outside Mogadishu, where about 360,000 displaced people are living under al-Shabaab control. The number of acutely malnourished children there has risen from 15% in July last year to 21%.
The drought has forced some families to move hundreds of miles in search of assistance. Halimo Ugas, a 30-year-old from Idale, an al-Shabaab-controlled area in southern Somalia, arrived in Garowe, in the northern state of Puntland, 10 days ago with her husband and five children. They live with some 180 families on a patch of rubbish-strewn scrubland dotted with tiny igloo-shaped structures made of sticks and covered with flattened cardboard boxes, hessian sacks and scraps of material.
"We used to own 30 cows. All died except one, but we could not even cook it because there was no water to prepare it," Ugas said. "We had no choice but to move."
Another woman, Asha Mohamed, said she had arrived three days ago on foot from a village about 45 miles (70km) away. She had lost five camels and numerous goats to the drought, she said.
Further south in Galkayo, a town split between two rival clans, the president of Galmudug state, Mohamed Ahmed Alin, appealed for urgent international help. He said cattle losses were growing, while the UN said the price of the staple sorghum had doubled there between November and December.
The scale of the problem has caught many in the aid community off guard. Until 2010, there had been seven consecutive seasons of rain failure in Somalia. But last year the rains were good, resulting in the best harvest for 15 years.
The fact that the country has slipped so quickly back into a food crisis shows how vulnerable its people are – a result of two decades without an effective government. It has also raised questions about how the grain gathered last year has disappeared quickly, with suspicion falling on farmers and traders who may be seeking to profit from the food shortages.
"It's surprising that the malnutrition rates are so high so soon after a good harvest," said Bowden. "We think there must be food hoarding taking place in some areas."
Food prices in Mogadishu, where the weak Somali government exercises some control, are lower than elsewhere due to the availability of food aid and the proximity to the port.Britain's international development secretary, Andrew Mitchell, has announced the UK will provide £10.5m of emergency assistance to Somalia through the UN. Aid would more than triple from £26m in 2010/11 to £80m in 2013/14, he said.