Climate change and Russia's war in Ukraine help push Somalia to the brink of famine

After three consecutive years of almost no rain, the East African country of Somalia is in the grips of its worst drought in more than 40 years, according to an analysis by the World Food Programme, the food-assistance branch of the United Nations. Experts say conditions are so dire for the nation’s 16 million residents that a famine threatening millions of people is fast approaching.

“A famine could be declared in some parts of the country in the next few months,” Abdi-Rashid Haji Nur, the Somalia country director for Concern Worldwide, told Yahoo News.

Three failed rainy seasons and a fourth now unfolding have resulted in barren harvests, malnourished livestock and such limited natural resources that at least 700,000 Somalis have uprooted their lives and left their homes in hopes of finding safety and sustenance. Many have been forced to set out on long journeys through dangerous terrain and conflict-ridden communities in search of urban centers to access support.

“The situation is not only alarming, but also deteriorating,” Patrick Youssef, regional director of Africa for the International Committee of the Red Cross, told Yahoo News. “People are massively abandoning their homes in search of food and water ... and women and children are dying on the way.”

A woman in Luglow, Somalia
A woman in a makeshift shelter in Luglow, Somalia. (Abdulkadir Mohamed/NRC)

Located in the region known as the Horn of Africa — which also includes the East African nations of Djibouti, Eritrea and Ethiopia — Somalia is experiencing its worst drought in more than a decade. From 2010-2012, a quarter of a million Somalis — half of them children — died during the last famine to be caused by drought, according to a report by the U.N. and the U.S.-funded Famine Early Warning Systems Network.

Today, more than a third of the population, or 6 million people, are facing severe hunger in a country where seven out of 10 people live on less than two dollars a day, data from the World Food Programme shows.

Estimates show that 350,000 of the 1.4 million severely malnourished children in the country would die by this summer if the country doesn’t get the aid they need, according to the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs.

“It is too late when children start dying from severe malnutrition and disease,” Haji Nur said. “Tragically, it is children who are always the first to suffer.”

Various humanitarian groups, including Concern Worldwide and the ICRC, are on the ground in Somalia, but insufficient funding and limited access to war-torn parts of the country means they can only do so much. Aid groups say they have raised just 3% of the funds that are needed to help the country.

An aerial view of Luglow, Somalia
A temporary camp for displaced people on the outskirts of Kismayo in Somalia’s southern region. (Abdulkadir Mohamed/NRC)

Extreme water and food shortages even before Russia’s war in Ukraine, which is known as “Europe’s breadbasket,” have only made an already fragile situation worse. Somalia imports about 90% of its wheat from Ukraine and Russia, and the war there has all but halted those shipments over the past two months, according to a report from the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development.

“Whatever happens in terms of that conflict is impacting prices here,” Will Seal, advocacy manager in Somalia for the Norwegian Refugee Council, told Yahoo News. “So what we’ve seen is increasing wheat prices, increasing cooking oil prices and increasing fuel prices. And unfortunately, while we could talk about these economic trends, it can literally be the difference for a family between being able to feed their children or not.”

Climate change has also played a dramatic role in altering weather patterns in the region. Flash flooding, rising temperatures, sandstorms and cyclones are somewhat the norm across Somalia and there have been at least seven droughts in the last 15 years.

While the country has become accustomed to extreme weather, in recent years the harsh extremes continue to happen more frequently, leaving the country little time to recover from one event before the next catastrophe is upon it.

“You’re seeing increasing frequency and intensity of major events and ... it’s just a tragedy on a massive scale,” Seal said.

Shukri Ali with her two sons
While Shukri Ali has been able to feed her children, many others have not — UNICEF projects that 1.4 million children in Somalia will face acute malnutrition through the end of this year. (Abdulkadir Mohamed/NRC)

Having one of the highest mean temperatures in the world, Somalia is on pace to get three degrees hotter by the end of the century, according to climate projections. Being that 60% of the population lives in rural areas, mainly living off the land or tending livestock, the effects of climate change can mean the difference between life and death.

“If you lose your animals, you sign up as a refugee, that’s what we say,” Mohamed Hassan Gure, a Somali herder, told the ICRC last fall. “There are many people who lost their animals and signed up as refugees.”

As evidenced by severe floods in South Africa this week that have left at least 500 dead or missing, the continent of Africa faces the brunt of other countries’ actions. In its latest report, the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change determined that Africa has historically been one of the world’s lowest greenhouse gas emitters, yet suffers some of the most severe effects of climate change.

“These floods are a tragic reminder of the increasing frequency of extreme weather conditions as a result of climate change,” South African President Cyril Ramaphosa said in a televised speech on Monday.

South African President Cyril Ramaphosa
South African President Cyril Ramaphosa. (Darren Stewart/Gallo Images) (Gallo Images via Getty Images)

Swift action needs to be taken to address the root causes of climate change or the results will be costly, Youssef said.

“I think we’ll be missing the point if we don’t engage in climate action,” Youssef said. “If we don’t ask the relevant development actors to step in, either international financial institutions, but also the states themselves, to search for solutions to the root causes that bring us into these cyclical, unfortunate cycles of vulnerability that we see across Africa. ... I bet you in the next three to five years, we’re going to be facing the same problem.”

In February, 50 Somali and international NGOs in an open letter asked for support from donor nations and the international community, hoping to avoid a repeat of another near famine-like drought a decade ago.

“In 2011, despite the warnings, the international humanitarian system did too little, too late and an estimated 260,000 people lost their lives to a famine,” the letter read in part. “We must make sure that history does not repeat itself.”

Batulo Mohamed, a drought-displaced mother of five, constructs a temporary shelter on the outskirts of Baidoa in southern Somalia
Batulo Mohamed, a drought-displaced mother of five, constructs a temporary shelter on the outskirts of Baidoa in southern Somalia. (Abdulkadir Mohamed/NRC)

The U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) has so far donated a total of $114 million to affected regions in the Horn of Africa. About half ($55M) of that sum will go directly to Somalia to provide nutrition, drinkable water and help rehabilitate water systems throughout the country, the organization told Yahoo News.

“To go two years with no rain or lack of sufficient rain is really devastating for millions of people across Somalia,” said Tracy O’Heir, head of USAID’s Bureau of Humanitarian Assistance East Africa Division.

“This is an unprecedented emergency and around the world donor countries have the responsibility to look at what they can do and how they can support,” she added. “We are very concerned that the amount of funding that is available right now is not going to meet the need.”

The organization has donated a total of $63M this year to aid groups in Somalia, but knows that more help is needed, and not just financial support.

Amina Isse
Amina Isse and her family used donkey carts to escape their rural village in Somalia and arrive in Kismayo in the south. She is one 745,000 people displaced by drought, many living in displacement camps with little support and no services. (Abdulkadir Mohamed/NRC)

It’s a universal responsibility, one that Youssef of the ICRC believes should be addressed on a global scale.

“Everyone fears, I think, that the world’s wealthy donor countries might prove so focused on the war in Europe that they forget that desperate needs elsewhere,” he said. “Ukraine can only teach us one lesson. If we don’t learn that lesson and be better afterwards, I think we’ll just be double losing in a way there’s no winner.”


Cover thumbnail photo: Omar Farouk/NRC