Helping Somalis Endure Hardship


May 22, 2008

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As Somalia slides closer to famine, Mercy Corps continues to drill boreholes, build schools and offer short-term jobs in an area where few global relief agencies will tread.

Mercy Corps has been working since last year to support livelihoods in southern Somalia, home to many of the 2.6 million Somalis who need food assistance because of the deteriorating humanitarian situation, according to the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO).

Skyrocketing food prices, the country's weak currency and worsening drought are among the factors.

A front-page New York Times story on May 17 described the crisis in wretched detail: children chewing on their lips, people eating a gruel made from tree branches and a mother inhaling her last breath before succumbing to hunger — situations all too familiar to Mercy Corps staff there.

"It's a life or death situation right now," agreed Abdikadir Mohamed, Mercy Corps' country director in Somalia. "Right now, the best we can do is continue putting money in people's pockets through our cash-for-work programs."

In the first three months of the year, 648 people — each representing a estimated household of six — participated in Mercy Corps cash-for-work programs that provided wages in exchange for community work. Roughly 450 people shored up riverbanks susceptible to breaches, while more than 200 cleared sections of a road vital for ferrying supplies, livestock and people to markets and health facilities.

Over the same period, six new shallow wells were constructed, which provide clean drinking water to more 18,600 people. We also taught hygiene and sanitation training to members of more than 500 households.

South-central Somalia is the poorest region of one of the world's poorest countries. It is in this area where competing clans struggle for control, where kids only dream of attending school, and where infrastructure is crumbling from 15 years of war and neglect.

A dozen aid workers have been killed in Somalia this year. Mercy Corps is one of only a handful of global relief agencies still operating in the southern part of the country.

Recently, inflation has caused prices of food and other household consumables to double in some areas. Cereal prices have surged by as much as 375 per cent in the past year, reaching historic levels, according to FAO.

Half of Somalia's population of 7 million could face an acute food and livelihood crisis by the end of the year if the rains are greatly below normal, food prices continue to soar and civil insecurity worsens, FAO's Chief Technical Adviser for Somalia warned recently.

The UN doesn't have a precise definition of famine, but the term is applied only when malnutrition and starvation are extreme and widespread. In Somalia, some of those factors used to gauge such crises "are closing in on famine range," the Times reported.

Before then, Mercy Corps hopes to secure funding to expand its assistance to Somalis, both in number and in geographic scope.

"More resources are sorely needed to avoid a full-scale humanitarian emergency," Mohamed says. "The world must act."