Overwhelming needs in Mogadishu

Somalia

August 25, 2011

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  <span class="field-credit">
    Cassandra Nelson/Mercy Corps  </span>
    There are over 1.46 million displaced people living in camps in Somalia and one third of them (about 500,000 people) are in camps in Mogadishu. Photo: Cassandra Nelson/Mercy Corps
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  <span class="field-credit">
    Cassandra Nelson/Mercy Corps  </span>
    Banadir Hospital, the government hospital in Mogadishu, is providing medical assistance to malnourished and sick people. The hospital is flooded with mothers and children, and there is a long line of people waiting to be admitted. Photo: Cassandra Nelson/Mercy Corps

I just got off a Horn of Africa emergency response team phone conference involving dozens of colleagues in at least five different countries: Ethiopia, Kenya, Somalia, the United Kingdom and the United States. We have these calls every few days to update each other and coordinate our efforts on what is one of the biggest crises to which we've ever responded.

The scale of the Horn of Africa crisis is staggering: the drought-stricken region is nearly half the size of the United States. Across this vast area, at least 12.4 million people are struggling to find enough food and water to survive, thousands of them walking for weeks to reach places where they hope to find some measure of relief.

One of those places is Mogadishu, Somalia's capital — which is, by its mere connotation, an unlikely locale to seek assistance. But 3.7 million people, about 40 percent of Somalia's total population, is at risk for starvation. That's why an estimated 100,000 people have fled to Mogadishu over the last several weeks.

Our team on the ground in Somalia is seeing the effects of that mass displacement. Today, they visited a camp where at least 120,000 people are staying in whatever shelter they can find. Our water and sanitation expert said there are only five or six latrines in the entire camp — at best, that's one latrine for every 20,000 people.

As a result, people go to the bathroom wherever they can, so diseases like cholera threaten to spread like wildfire through the cramped confines of these camps, which are usually shoved into vacant lots, back alleys, public parks and along roadsides.

That's why our water and sanitation expert is there in Mogadishu, devising strategies and solutions to address these overwhelming challenges. We're coordinating with other humanitarian organizations to ensure the work gets done as quickly and efficiently as possible. Our team is planning to increase the water supply to displaced families in these camps, as well as dig more latrines to provide better sanitation, which reduces the risk of disease.

And we're also concentrating on helping another place overwhelmed by Somalia's wave of displacement: Mogadishu's hospitals. Our team spoke with staff at the city's main hospital today, and reported enormous needs.

"We need to liberate this hospital to do the work they need to do," our water and sanitation expert told us. "They're overwhelmed and overworked. They have no resources."

Every room, ward and space at the hospital is filled with children and others suffering from malnutrition, cholera and measles. Meanwhile, the hospital's 80-year-old water system can't keep up with the needs of so many patients. So we're working on a way to install new water supply lines to parts of the hospital including the medical wards and kitchen.

Thousands more families are arriving in Mogadishu every day, searching desperately for survival amid Africa's worst crisis in decades. It's overwhelming — you can hear it in the voices of our field team during these phone calls, which come near the end of their busy days. But you can also hear determination in the voices, as well as ideas of what to do tomorrow to reach more families — and that's what keeps all of us working hard to solve this crisis.