Somalia is on the brink of famine

A person feeds the dregs of their morning tea leaves to their last surviving camel, after fleeing home due to the drought that is ravaging Somalia.
In a camp for displaced people outside of Baidoa, Somalia, Fadumo Maxamed Ahmed feeds the dregs of her morning tea leaves to her family’s last surviving camel.
October 04, 2022

More than a million people have been displaced in Somalia—forced to leave their homes in search of water and food. The Horn of Africa, and Somalia in particular, will have a fifth consecutive season of insufficient to no rain and forecasts for the upcoming season show no relief in sight. In regions prone to drought, we are seeing how the countries that have done the least to contribute to climate change are the most severely impacted by it, with countries like Somalia facing potential famine.

Mercy Corps CEO Tjada D’Oyen McKenna recently spoke with Mark Goldberg on the Global Dispatches podcast to discuss the crisis in Somalia. Tjada shares insights from her recent trip to Baidoa, where she heard from families living in camps for displaced people who fled their homes after losing everything. From how the war in Ukraine and COVID have exacerbated the situation to how humanitarian agencies can meet urgent needs while also providing long-term support, Tjada speaks on some of the challenges that have led to this current crisis and the opportunities to act now.

Listen to the full episode of Global Dispatches here.


Transcript of “Global Dispatches” with Mark Goldberg and Tjada D’Oyen McKenna

Tjada D’Oyen McKenna: More than one family that I spoke to told me that they considered it a good day if they were able to have one meal of rice that day.

Mark L. Goldberg: I emphasize this in the conversation, but it’s worth repeating upfront that famine is not just a descriptive term for when people lack food. Rather, it is a quantitative threshold pegged to mortality rates from starvation. So, by the time a famine is declared, people are already dying in massive numbers from starvation. In 2011, the last time a famine was declared in Somalia, about a quarter of a million people died, and now, once again, famine is looming in Somalia. Needless to say, I don’t think this crisis is getting the attention it deserves and I was grateful to have the opportunity to speak with Tjada McKenna about the unfolding situation in Somalia. One quick programing note: if you are listening to this contemporaneously, then stay tuned next week, the week of September 19th, for daily coverage of the United Nations General Assembly. The podcast has teamed up with the United Nations Foundation for a series of episodes that will bring you key news and analysis from the United Nations General Assembly and assorted events around New York City during high level week. These episodes will be released daily the week of September 19th, and the best way to make sure that you stay on top of events at UNGA 77 is to subscribe to the podcast using your favorite podcast listening app. I suspect you will find this series helpful and useful.

Tjada: I was in Somalia the week of August 22nd, and I went to Mogadishu, the capital, as well as a town called Baidoa, which is in the northwest state of Somalia, and it was about an hour and a half plane ride away from Mogadishu. In both places, I met with U.N. agencies and funders and government officials, but my real goal was to go to the internally displaced people camps that have been set up. And so, what happened is that people have left the rural areas of Somalia most times after they’ve lost everything, and they’ve set up camps on the outskirts of town with the hopes of seeking humanitarian aid there. So, food, water and organizations like Mercy Corps and others are working with different camps to provide services. And what I saw is that these camps are numerous. They’re all over. They’re informal, and people are just arriving constantly. So even as I was visiting a camp, I saw families just coming in. And when families come to these camps, it’s not like there’s a registration center or, you know, someone there waiting. They find an empty space next to another tent or something that’s been set up and they just start setting up their area using tree branches and tarps or whatever else they can find, and they just start settling in.

What I saw was devastating and I can’t get it out of my mind when you talk to the people, they live in rural areas. I met a woman who’d walked 14 days to get to this encampment, I think that’s the longest walk I heard someone talk about, and they’ve lost everything. So, these are people who were pastoralists, you know, they had animals. One gentleman was telling me that he had 30 cattle and, you know, a bunch of donkeys and all his animals had died, and he was down to one donkey that just was resilient and hadn’t died. And he and his family just came with that donkey and whatever else they had on their back and walked because without that livestock, without any income from it, there’s no food and there’s no way for them to purchase food, and so they’re just looking for help to prevent themselves from starving to death. And people look like they were on the brink of starvation. It was very sad.

Mark: As you said, there are presumably thousands of people who have had a similar experience to the family you met, people who left rural areas for lack of food, seeking relatively safer places to stay on the outskirts of town. Do you have a sense just of sheer numbers, how many people have been internally displaced in recent months due to this food crisis?

Tjada: So we think that in the past year, about 1 million people have been forced to leave their homes in search of food and water.

Mark: Are there any other stories you could share about individuals you met when visiting these camps and what their experiences tell you about the current crisis in Somalia?

Tjada: More than one family that I spoke to told me that they considered it a good day if they were able to have one meal of rice that day. Many had gone, even in the camps, multiple days without eating. I went to two hospitals, one in each town where I visited, and in the first hospital, the gentleman told me, we are burying babies and that stuck with me for the rest of my trip, and I heard the same story over and over again. The degree of severe acute malnutrition in both children and adults is visible, and it’s haunting. I met two different women who had children die on their walks from the rural areas to the camps, and they both talked about having to bury their children at the side of the road. In Somalia, people tend to have big families, so these were women with six, seven, eight children and just matter of factly telling me how one of them died on the route. At the hospital, the stories from the parents at the hospital and the hospital workers are quite stark. I went to a severe acute malnutrition ward in a city in Mogadishu. I met a woman who had traveled for 11 days to get there with her child — she hadn’t even gone and set up a camp, she just came straight to that location with their child — and in that area of the treatment ward, there were at least five children who were two years of age, 24 months, all weighing less than seven kilograms, which is 15 pounds. And, you know, I’m a mother of children who are seven and nine and it was really hard for me just not to be in complete tears the whole time. And the thing is, many of the people I was talking to, there were no tears because they were just teared out. I don’t even know if they physically had it in them to cry anymore because they were searching and trying to live themselves.

One of the doctors told me that one of the issues that they’re having is in the severe acute malnutrition ward where the kids are served Plumpy’Nut, 1. The hospital doesn’t have enough for everybody but 2. What they were seeing is that mothers who were starving themselves when they were giving the allocation to the child, that the mothers would sometimes try to take some for themselves or the mothers would try to save some to take home to their other children who weren’t sick enough to be in the hospital, yet still had not had food to eat. I met a man who looked to be in his seventies, although I don’t know his precise age, and he was a severe adult malnutrition case, and the hospital did not have feeding supplies for adults. It’s heartbreaking to see a senior citizen who was so tiny, and he basically could just really only sleep or lay still all day. He just had no energy and was just down to bones and the idea that that facility didn’t have the right nourishment for him was heartbreaking.

As I met all these different people and heard their stories, the thing that stuck with me was how much worse it must be for people who had not yet left or who were not able to leave those areas for food. You know, obviously, people died before they even could leave, and some families had left husbands behind or one person behind to just protect their land or whatever property they had in search of food, and I just can’t imagine how much worse things are in those communities for people to make these long treks and they can be dangerous treks as well.

Mark: I mean, you’re painting just a very grim picture of the situation in Somalia right now and one thing I wanted to emphasize as we start a discussion about famine in Somalia is that famine itself is not a generally descriptive term. Rather, it’s an acknowledgment that certain quantitative thresholds around starvation and mortality and the kind of severe acute malnutrition you described, once those have been reached, then a famine can be declared. And these are, generally speaking, very high thresholds, meaning that once a famine is declared, people are already dying in massive numbers. From the data that you’ve seen and just the anecdotal evidence you’ve heard, do you believe that the famine threshold has already been exceeded in parts of Somalia?

Tjada: I suspect that it is and in fact, the U.N. issued kind of a final urgent warning, saying that it expected, I believe it was at least three communities or states, to enter famine conditions in October through December. The message I’ve had for people is that it really doesn’t matter what you call it and what you just said, hit it right on the head, like famine is declared after people are already dying, right? So, no matter what we declare or what nomenclature we give it, the reality is people are dying. People are fighting to survive. And every day that we wait to get the support that is needed, the suffering just grows exponentially, right? And so, it’s not this linear thing. It really is, every day of a child being stunted or being close to stunting, that’s brain capacity that that child may not recover because of that. And that’s a lifelong ramification of this and so there’s just a real sense of urgency that I don’t think is recognized. I do worry that we’re focusing so much on is it a famine or when are they going to declare it and the reality is people are dying.

Mark: So Somalia last experienced a famine in 2011. Over a quarter of a million people died and yet here we are again on the verge of it again. How did we get to this point and what is driving this current crisis?

Tjada: You know, the sad thing is with climate change here, we are going to keep seeing severe droughts and they probably will start coming closer together and will be worse than the last one. The Horn of Africa and Somalia in particular has not had a good rain season since January of 2021. So that’s four consecutive seasons, coming up on a fifth, where there has just been insufficient to no rain coming. The recent rainy season from March, April, May is believed to have been the worst in at least the last 70 years, and forecasts indicate that this October to December rainy season is going to fail. It is an area prone to drought and what we’re seeing around the world really is that the countries like Somalia that have done the least to contribute to climate change are the most severely impacted by it. So, you talk about the drought, but we have to remember where we started from. We’d already seen a lot of setbacks in terms of poverty and a lot of increases in hunger due to COVID, right? The COVID itself led to supply shortages and things being more expensive and a loss of income for some communities. So, on top of COVID, then you have this drought that’s going on in the midst of it, and then you have the war in Ukraine, which caused global food prices to skyrocket. And so, as a result, millions more Somali families could no longer afford to buy enough food. We also have seen a rapid increase in the cost of fertilizer and other agricultural inputs and so the combination of those is devastating, not just for now, but in terms of future years and the lack of crops we’ll see from inadequate input usage.

Since the war in Ukraine started across all commodities, in Somalia, fuel has increased an average of 43%, vegetable oil by 134%, flour by 35%, and the different price of fertilizers have increased by 75%. So those are a few of the present factors. The other things that are exacerbating this is there has been a lot of deforestation in Somalia and uses for charcoal. And in fact, as we drove through Somalia to the camps, first of all, you saw failed crops everywhere, just things that did not grow and I saw lots of people in wheelbarrows with their failed crops. And I was told that those people are taking them to sell to make charcoal.

Mark: So you described COVID, layered on top of which was the Ukraine crisis, layered on top of which was four successive failed rainy seasons, causing this region wide drought. How does the ongoing conflict insurgency with al-Shabab fit into this mix of contributing factors to this current food crisis?

Tjada: The ongoing situation with al-Shabab certainly doesn’t help, and there are few ways that it likely exacerbates things. There are some areas that are al-Shabab controlled where security access may not be possible to get people help and so we suspect that a lot of the communities people are fleeing may be al-Shabab controlled communities, but we’re not sure of that. There is a new government in Somalia. They had recent elections and they continue to go after al-Shabab and try to eradicate al-Shabab but I think the uncertainty over the security environment also makes it more difficult for people to get out and a little bit more perilous and it just adds to the day to day chaos and uncertainty of Somalia because, with a group like al-Shabab, you just don’t know when things are coming and when they’re not.

Mark: I’m curious to learn what you think needs to be done, both by the international community and by local actors to prevent this food crisis from escalating even further and tipping the scales into a really devastating famine. What is needed based on your own observations from being in Somalia recently visiting humanitarian sites? And more broadly, what kind of conversations are you having with policymakers about this crisis?

Tjada: In terms of urgent things that communities that are desperately in need of: increased access to water is a huge thing. This includes like trucking water, repairing broken water points, digging boreholes. You know, existing water shortages are obviously already worse because of the high temperatures and the lack of rain. We’ve been providing a lot of water services and water trucking to displaced camps. The other thing is nutrition monitoring and access to health care facilities. There’s got to be easy access to health care facilities with a special priority on nutrition support and treatment for severe and acute malnutrition, especially for children to get the food and the medical care that they need. The hospitals are just overwhelmed, and a lot of people don’t even have access to hospitals, so we’ve got to get more health care facilities, be they mobile facilities or other things. The third thing that we think is really important is access to cash. So where local markets are open and functioning and they still tend to be, especially in the towns where these camps are, people can use cash to buy food and water or other necessities that they need. It gives people dignity and it also kind of helps them get what they need for their families right then and there.

What we are telling policymakers is, yes, we have to act now and save lives, but it would be a failure if we just turned our resources towards saving lives right now and we’re not doing things to actively build the ecosystem and to build more resilience in these communities. A best-case scenario is that as future weather events or things like this happen, that people will not have to leave their areas to get the support they need. And this was all happening in a place that was very fragile. So, some of the things that look like in terms of fixing local food systems, are increased access to animal health services, more animal feed to keep livestock alive, more methods to quickly sell livestock, access to credit to help people with the insurance and credit and savings programs, thinking about alternative livelihoods or systems to increase income in these rural areas. Once a family has already gone to a camp, they’ve lost everything, and many families are stuck in these camps for years and years because they may not have any place to go back to.

Mark: Somalia, ten years ago experienced a really devastating famine. Did the international community not respond back then with those kind of resilience building projects that you argue are needed now, or did they just respond insufficiently to that end?

Tjada: One of the challenges in our sector is that the way the architecture has been built, a lot of organizations operate in very siloed ways and a lot of the funding comes in very siloed ways. So, there’s a pot for emergency humanitarian assistance and then another pot for long term development and there’s a lot of political will and money allocated on that emergency humanitarian side, which is around saving lives right then. So, a lot of things that people will find are around the immediate needs and there’s a pressure to just get that money out as quickly as possible, whether that means buying food or giving cash or doing other things.

The money available for long term development sometimes does not match the emergency, and a lot of donors make the mistake of bypassing places like Somalia when it comes to long term development funds, and the problem with that is that the areas most affected by climate change and by poverty tend to be areas where conflict exists, right? And so, the most vulnerable people are in areas where conflict exists and these are reinforcing cycles, right? So, if you have a drought and the government is not able to provide food or to help you, then you’re more vulnerable to joining an al-Shabab or another group that may be able to provide services that the government can’t, or they may have an easier time recruiting people when systems fall down like this. So, it is the cycle of poverty and hunger and conflict that go round and round and we as a development community have not directed enough funding to really building systems in areas affected by conflict, one that helps to stave off future conflict, but the reality is that most of the world’s poorest people are living in conflict areas and will continue to be.

Mark: And on this relationship between conflict and food crises, I mean, I’ve been doing this a long time, and I remember back in 2011, one of the complicating factors in the international response to the famine was concern because a U.S. law is on the books that providing aid to areas under al-Shabab control specifically might violate U.S. laws on dealing with terrorist groups. Do these barriers still exist today in terms of trying to provide humanitarian assistance to al-Shabab controlled areas? Are these U.S. laws on the books still hindering access?

Tjada: Nobody wants to see funds going to bad actors. The reality is, in a lot of situations, if al-Shabab controls an area or controls different sectors, there will be some leakage, and I think policies and fears of those policies is something that the U.N. certainly has to work around and try to negotiate. And it also drives organizations like ours to sometimes work in safer zones, or it might make us a little bit slower in giving help because of all the checks that we need to do. And I do think we need to think about different paths or other opportunities where we can do this work in countries and communities like Somalia and Afghanistan. And we’ve all adapted, and we all know how it works, but yes, it certainly complicates things. But we also recognize that those laws are on the books for good reasons and that we need to be thinking about creative solutions to try to achieve the same impacts.

Mark: In the coming weeks, days, or months, are there any indicators that you will be looking towards that will suggest to you how the crisis in Somalia may unfold?

Tjada: I know the U.N. is in the process of scaling up its various agencies and moving resources from places like Ukraine in some cases, to the horn to try to address this. I will be eager to see how quickly those systems are being set up and how much coordination and boots on the ground there are there. We’ll also be looking, frankly, at media coverage, which is why I’m so grateful to you for doing this podcast. I think there’s always a lot of noise and a lot of things going on in the world, and people have a hard time focusing, but we do need attention to what the people of Somalia are going through and the people in the Horn of Africa. We need media attention to have that imperative to act.

Mark: I mean, that raises the problem that you identified earlier about this sort of harping on whether or not it’s a famine, a declared famine or not. I mean, with that declaration comes broader media coverage than, you know, my podcast. I’m interested in stuff intuitively, and that seems like almost like a chicken and egg problem.

Tjada: It is, and the hope is that the word famine and the declaration of famine will bring a lot of attention and an onslaught of money, and we hope that that is the case. I just I don’t know that that will be the case. If you look, when the war in Ukraine started, we had some donors who moved funding out of other hugely vulnerable places like Myanmar and Venezuela to accommodate that. So, my fear is that we just aren’t going to have the responses that we’ve had because we’ve seen donor governments, especially in some cases, the U.S. has stepped up tremendously. It’s not because I’m American that I’m saying this, but the U.S. has really stepped up its funding for Somalia in a very significant way. And we do not take that for granted. But I am fearful that some governments won’t increase. They’ll do this either/or or they just won’t have the capacity to respond. We’ve seen this donor fatigue or disaster fatigue for a while now and so that’s why I understand why we harp on the word famine; I just really want to make sure that we try to drive that sense of urgency and not be disappointed if the huge influx doesn’t come once that word is actually declared.

Mark: Is there anything else you want to mention? Anything that I didn’t ask, any point you wanted to make?

Tjada: I saw a figure recently that more than 3 million animals in pastoral communities in Somalia have died due to the drought and that’s just a devastating, devastating amount. Just to reiterate this real need to think about how to get these populations back on their feet; how to help people with livestock and other things for longer term solutions to help relocate people. I just encourage donor governments to really look at their budgets and to ensure that the support is not just in the life saving slash emergency category, because these are long term issues that require longer term solutions and creative solutions, and it’s a lot cheaper to address the long-term systemic issues at play than to respond to the disasters like we have to do now. And right now, we’re in this cycle of just always responding and waiting for it to get to its worst and we just can’t afford to do that, particularly with climate change. There are so many protracted crises in the world, it’s very quaint to think that we can still be thinking and working in that way, and yet we are.

Mark: Tjada, thank you so much for your time.

Tjada: Thanks for having me.

Mark: Thank you for listening to Global Dispatches. Our show is produced by me, Mark Leon Goldberg, and edited and mixed by Levi Sharp.

Join us in building a more equitable world.