Great Famine of 2011: Tragedy looms in the Horn

Sunday July 10 2011

A Somali family at a feeding centre at a refugee camp in northern Kenya. Picture: File

A Somali family at a feeding centre at a refugee camp in northern Kenya. Picture: File 


In 1984, a Kenyan photographer and cameraman named Mohamed Amin shocked the world into action with his images of famine victims in Ethiopia.

Today, 15 years after he was tragically killed in the crash of a hijacked Ethiopian Airlines flight off the Comoros Islands, famine once again stalks the Horn of Africa, threatening the lives of 10 million people in what the USAid-funded Famine Early Warning Systems Network (Fews Net) describes as one of the world’s most severe food security emergencies.

Perhaps no country in the region is as badly affected as Somalia. The Somalia Food Security and Nutrition Analysis Unit (FSNAU) estimates that 2.85 million people — a third of the population — are now in humanitarian crisis and in need of urgent assistance, an increase of 42.5 per cent over the figure in December 2010. “We are no longer on the verge of a humanitarian disaster; we are in the middle of it now,” Isaq Ahmed, the chairman of the Mubarak Relief and Development Organisation, a local NGO working in the south of the country, told IRIN on June 28. “It is happening and no one is helping.”

Indeed, the numbers coming out of Somalia paint a terrible picture of a population caught in a perfect storm of calamities: A two-decade long brutal conflict that has seen the country play host to one of the largest displaced populations in the world; the worst drought in a generation has precipitated a sharp decline in food production; rising food prices mean that even the little available is out of reach of the impoverished population; and funding shortfalls for relief agencies resulting from a faltering global economy.

The prevalence of acute malnutrition among children under five years is an objective crisis indicator, reflecting the wider situation of emergency affected populations, including their food security, livelihoods, public health and social environment, say Helen Young and Susanne Jaspars in their paper The Meaning and Measurement of Acute Malnutrition in Emergencies: A Primer For Decision-makers.

According to the United Nations Office for the Co-ordination of Humanitarian Affairs, at least 75 per cent of the estimated 241,000 malnourished children in Somalia reside in the volatile southern regions where the country’s internationally recognised Transitional Federal Government is battling a brutal insurgency in the latest iteration of the country’s 20-year civil war. In some of these areas, 1 in 3 children is malnourished, more than double the emergency threshold of 15 per cent.

In August 2010, the national level of acute malnutrition was 15.2 per cent with 16.6 per cent in the south. Five months later the situation had deteriorated in most parts of the country and a national rate of 16 per cent was reported, with 25 per cent in the south. Assessments conducted in April 2011 confirmed a sustained crisis. Complicating the situation in the south even further, Al Qaeda-linked extremist insurgents continue to bar international humanitarian agencies from access to the needy populations, accusing them of promulgating Christianity and Western ideology.

The conflict has also created huge numbers of internally displaced persons. Since January, the UN estimates the drought has added a further 55,000. These are most often the poorest of the poor and it is no coincidence, therefore, that they are suffering disproportionately. While a third of the general population is in crisis, the ratio among IDPs is twice that. In February, 910,000, or 62 per cent of the country’s 146,000 IDPs, were identified by FSNAU as being in crisis. The situation is now driving more people to flee the country altogether, many of them having to walk for up to a month to reach refugee camps in Kenya and Ethiopia.

At the Daadab refugee camp in Kenya, the largest in the world, about 1,300 Somalis are arriving every day, nearly two-thirds of them children. “Nearly every child or parent we have spoken to says they are not just fleeing fighting in Somalia — the drought and food crisis are equally perilous to them now,” Catherine Fitzgibbon, Save the Children’s Kenya programme director, told the BBC. “Children are arriving in Dadaab barefoot, after walking six weeks. They’re covered in sores and wounds, they’re acutely malnourished, they’re completely dehydrated and that is preferable to the conditions they are living in in south-central Somalia… A mother arrived at one of our feeding centres saying she’d actually left her children behind in the village because she couldn’t watch them die. She had walked away and left her six children in a house. Two of them ended up dying and we managed to reach four others,” added Sonia Zambakides, the organisation’s emergency manager for Somalia

For those left behind, relief, when it has come, has often been a case of too little too late. Two consecutive seasons of poor rain have resulted in one of the driest years since 1950/51 and there is no likelihood of improvement until 2012, says UN-OCHA. Last year, the October to December deyr short rains were below normal due to the La Niña weather phenomenon. As a result, this year’s January/February crop harvests in the agro-pastoral and riverine areas of southern Somalia, where people predominantly rely on rainfall for subsistence farming, were only a fifth of the average according to the Food Security & Nutrition Working Group. In these regions, the number of people in crisis had by February this year increased by almost 70 per cent to 440,000. Due to disproportionate access to farming inputs, female-headed households have suffered most.

Further, while the long rainy season (gu’) normally starts in early April, this year it was late and poorly distributed across much of the country. In and around Mogadishu, it only started raining in the second week of May. Throughout April, the rainfall performance remained significantly below normal, according to the African Development Trust.

Humanitarian relief efforts have fared little better. In December 2010, the UN launched the 2011 Consolidated Appeal for Somalia, asking for nearly $530 million to help it cater for approximately 2 million people. Though this represented an 11 per cent decrease from the 2010 mid-year funding request, only half the funds have so far been received. The funding shortage is biting hard. “We began having to cut ration sizes from February, to try to eke out what food we did have coming through the system,” says World Food Programme spokesman Peter Smerdon. “In May, we had only about 30 per cent of the food we need to feed the one million people that we were expecting to feed this time of the year. In fact, we’re feeding 66 per cent of the one million people we should be feeding, but the amount of food being given out is only 33 per cent of what we should be giving out.”

In the wake of the drought, as local food production has plummeted, food prices, propelled by rising fuel costs, have skyrocketed. Since December 2010, the average daily cost of food for Somali families has increased between 21 and 27 per cent, with areas in the south reporting increases of 37 per cent, according to the USAid. Prices of local staples are showing significant increases. Concern Worldwide, an international humanitarian agency working in Somalia, says the cost of cereals has increased by up to 135 per cent since last year. Fews Net estimates that red sorghum prices have risen by up to 240 per cent over the same period. In general, current maize prices are around their peak levels of mid-2008 during the global food price crisis, while those of red sorghum have surpassed them.

According to the FAO, only 40-50 per cent of Somalia’s per capita cereal needs are met locally and approximately 500,000 tonnes of grains must be commercially imported to support the population. The Food Security & Nutrition Working Group says prices of imported cereals are stabilising but remain above the 5-year average in most markets, partly due to high fuel prices. The cost of imported rice, stable in the last quarter of 2010, rose during the first months of 2011 and is currently up to 30 per cent higher than the previous year. This is despite a steady drop of about 3 per cent in the global price of rice since January this year.

The combination of extremely high food prices and plummeting livestock prices has substantially eroded the purchasing power of Somalia’s pastoral communities. Pastoralists depend on livestock for all their basic needs and animal sales are often used to buy grain. However, in Juba region for example, between May 2010 and May 2011, the value of one cow collapsed from 430 kg to 161 kg of maize. FSNAU notes that increased camel exports at the Bossaso port — 7 per cent of total livestock between January and May compared with 2 per cent over the same period last year — are additional indicators of stress selling in pastoral areas. A statement issued by Oxfam at the beginning of July concludes, “Livelihoods have already been decimated, but there is now also a real risk of large-scale loss of life.”

Though mass deaths on the scale of the Ethiopian famine are yet to be reported, worrying signs of localised starvation are emerging, especially insurgent-controlled areas where it is impossible to send aid.

Further, pressure must be brought to bear on the insurgents and their supporters to allow for the immediate distribution of emergency supplies to areas under their control, where the situation is particularly worrying. In this regard, Amisom, whose mandate covers the facilitation of humanitarian relief, must be equipped to do so. Indeed, all parties, from the donor community to the local authorities in Somalia, must lift existing restrictions on the delivery of aid to allow the humanitarian community to effectively address the crisis.

Nearly three decades ago, Mohammed Amin showed the world the face of a calamity, and the world responded. Action now to avert a similar tragedy would be the best tribute the global community could pay to his memory.