Somalia famine to be declared next month, despite years of warning signs

After four consecutive years of drought, parts of Somalia are projected to enter a famine next month, based on new reports about acute food insecurity in the region. Despite warning signs from humanitarian groups for years about the dire situation facing the East African country’s 16 million residents, experts say, world leaders have essentially turned the other way.

“There are early warning mechanisms, social protection mechanisms [and] things that could trigger what we call anticipatory action,” said Abby Maxman, president of Oxfam America, a global organization that focuses on the alleviation of global poverty. “What's most frustrating is we've been sounding the alarm for some time, and yet the system isn't responding timely enough. Those warnings are not being heeded.”

About 7 million people across Somalia are expected to face high levels of acute food insecurity from October through December, which means they are in dire need of food assistance, according to the latest data from the Integrated Food Security Phase Classification (IPC), a tool for improving food security analysis and decision making. Two million of those people have been designated in an even higher emergency classification, meaning they go days without food, while another 300,000 rural residents in the Baidoa and Burhakaba districts, both in the southern region of the country, have entered a catastrophe designation, in which malnutrition and mortality rates remain at alarming levels. Without immediate resources at their disposal, many Somalians have rationed what little resources they have, while others are going days and weeks without food and water altogether. If these conditions remain, 1 out of every 5 children in the country faces death from malnutrition.

Ali Arif, tall and gaunt, stands in a brick-red, arid landscape with his emaciated goats behind him, holding his shepherd's crook and a goat with a distended belly.
Ali Arif, 73, migrated from Ethiopia in search of water, and was fortunate to find it. After trekking 25 days with his family, he was able to keep his herd of goats alive. (Omar Farouk/NRC)

A famine is a rare and specific declaration made by the United Nations and national governments, according to the IPC. The designation is made when at least 20% of households are facing an extreme lack of food, about 30% of children are suffering from acute malnutrition, and 2 people of every 10,000 are dying each day due to outright starvation or to the interaction of malnutrition and disease.

Leaders from many of the world’s richest and most polluting countries have made pledges over the last decade to curb global warming by taking "meaningful and effective actions,” but activists say the efforts have not gone nearly far enough, and no concrete plans have been agreed upon.

“The rich and powerful countries have a moral duty to respond, to save lives and to take responsibility to be held accountable for the causes that are making those at the bottom suffer disproportionately,” Maxman told Yahoo News.

United Nations humanitarian chief Martin Griffiths said earlier this month that the current crisis in Somalia is so bad that he has seen starving babies too weak to cry.

"You feel like you're looking at the face of death," Mercy Corps CEO Tjada McKenna told the Associated Press after visiting the dilapidated city of Baidoa, where young children and pregnant women had no food to eat and no water to drink. "For every one person I saw, imagine all the people who couldn't get that far. And so many people were arriving each day."

An aerial shot of a truck by a narrow road dispensing water from a giant bladder to dozens of women in brightly colored shawls.
Water distribution in a camp in Luglow, Somalia, with a truck bringing a 10,000-liter bladder where people can come to collect water in jerry cans. (Omar Farouk/NRC)

This isn’t the first time Somalia has experienced famine. A 2011 famine in the country claimed the lives of 260,000 people, more than half of them children under the age of 6. Even then, critics warned that the famine declaration had come too late, since more than 120,000 people had already died. Many fear a repeat a decade later.

“A famine designation will be too late — people are already dying,” David Miliband, president and CEO of the International Rescue Committee, said in a statement. “During the last famine in Somalia in 2011, half of all deaths occurred before famine was declared. … The international community pledged to ‘never again’ allow famine in Somalia or wait so long to act, but it is repeating the same mistake this year.”

A mixture of factors, including climate change, regional conflict, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and extreme poverty, have made this crisis especially acute.

Last week, as world leaders gathered for the United Nations General Assembly in New York City, members of 238 local and international nongovernmental organizations from 75 countries wrote an open letter to U.N. member states about the global crisis, in which one person is estimated to die from hunger every four seconds.

“From Somalia to Haiti, South Sudan to Yemen, Afghanistan to Nigeria, people’s lives in the most fragile contexts are being devastated by a global food crisis, fueled by a deadly mix of conflict, climate change, rising costs and economic crises, exacerbated by COVID-19 and the Ukraine conflict,” it reads.

Shukri Ali, in a bright red shawl, and her two sons shelter under their cart.
Shukri Ali shelters with her two sons under their cart on the outskirts of Kismayo in Lower Juba, Somalia. She and her family were forced to flee in search of aid. (Abdulkadir Mohamed/NRC)

Four failed rainy seasons have resulted in barren harvests, malnourished livestock and such limited natural resources that at least 1 million Somalians have been forced to leave their homes in hopes of finding safety and sustenance. Many have set out on long journeys through dangerous terrain and conflict-ridden communities to look for support in urban centers.

“Their livestock are dying, and they're reducing what they eat,” Maxman said. “They're changing their lifestyle, and they're moving to these displaced persons' camps to live in community, but without alternative and sustainable livelihoods.”

Extreme water and food shortages that prevailed even before Russia’s war in Ukraine, known as “Europe’s breadbasket,” have made an already fragile situation worse. Somalia imports about 90% of its wheat from Ukraine and Russia, and the war there has significantly reduced shipments. That, in turn, has caused a sharp rise in prices.

“Ukraine is not the cause of what's happening there, but certainly it is supercharging the issues that we've seen, in terms of the spikes in prices of food, fuel, fertilizer that directly and indirectly affect lives and livelihoods in East Africa,” said Maxman.

“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 in April. “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.”

Hawa Mohamed Isack, in a gray printed shawl, lifts a large and soiled plastic container of water to her lips, like another person behind her.
Hawa Mohamed Isack, 60, at an internally displaced persons' camp in Baidoa, Somalia, on Feb. 13. (Yasuyoshi Chiba/AFP via Getty Images) (AFP via Getty Images)

As crops fail, it’s not lost on advocates that the G-20 group, an intergovernmental forum made up of the world’s biggest economies, accounts for 80% of the world's emissions, and that the most vulnerable countries experience the harshest effects, which trickle down to food, health and education. Thirty-three extremely high-risk countries, including Somalia, collectively emit only 9% of global carbon dioxide emissions.

“With the dire situation in Somalia likely to worsen further into 2023, as an unprecedented fifth consecutive failed rainy season is predicted, warnings can no longer be ignored,” Parvin Ngala, Oxfam’s regional director for the Horn, East and Central Africa, said in a statement. “World leaders and the international community must act now."

While political leaders have made many promises, in the cities, towns, villages, and refugee and internal displacement camps where millions of lives hang in the balance, far too little has changed. Or as puts it, "In a world of plenty, leaving people to starve is a policy choice.”

The carcass of a cow is stretched out on parched earth.
The carcass of a cow lies on the outskirts of Dhobley in Lower Juba. The deaths of hundreds of thousands of animals due to lack of water and feed has destroyed incomes and futures for huge numbers of Somalians. (Abdulkadir Mohamed/NRC)

The U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) has so far donated over $2 billion in critical humanitarian assistance across the Horn of Africa to affected regions, but acknowledges that a gap of $1 billion remains, according to the U.N. Just under half of that sum will go directly to Somalia to provide nutrition and drinkable water and help to rehabilitate water systems throughout the country, a USAID spokesperson told Yahoo News.

“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,” Tracy O’Heir, head of USAID’s Bureau of Humanitarian Assistance East Africa Division, told Yahoo News earlier this year. “We are very concerned that the amount of funding that is available right now is not going to meet the need.”

For Maxman, it’s a global responsibility that deserves a global response.

“It is shameful that people are on the brink of famine anywhere,” she said. “And it's preventable with sensible policies, with things like a global wealth tax … and heeding alarms early, so that you're saving lives and investing in building resilience in the future.”