260,000 People Didn’t Have to Die of Famine in Somalia

From 2010-2012, 260,000 people — half of them children under the age of five — died in the famine in Somalia, a “significantly higher” figure than perished in the 1992 famine when 252,000 people died over twelve months. Severe drought caused a crisis which was made all the worse due to political conflict arising from rival groups in a power struggle, says a new report (pdf) from the United Nations and the U.S.-funded Famine Early Warning Systems Network (Fews Net).

The report reveals the “true enormity of this human tragedy” of the famine for the first time and identifies the slow response of international groups as a factor.

Speaking from a video news conference in Mogadishu last week, Philippe Lazzarini, the chief U.N. humanitarian coordinator for Somalia, made the point that the “famine was almost a silent drama of tragedy” in part because “it was not on the news.” Both agencies and media did not have access to affected areas, in part because of the weak central government and lack of security on the roads.

Chronology of the Famine

In 2011, an extreme drought affected in the Horn of Africa, resulting in tens of thousands of people abandoning their homes in a desperate search for food. The famine was first declared in July 2011 in Somalia’s Southern Bakool and Lower Shabelle regions. These were under the control of the militant Islamist group al-Shabab, which is aligned to al-Qaeda. Al-Shabab denied the existence of the famine and prevented more than a dozen Western aid agencies from operating there.

The drought caused livestock deaths and reduced harvests, resulting in a lowered demand for labor and declining household incomes. At the same, the poor harvests were driving food prices to “extreme levels.”

Regions under the control of al-Shabab were ultimately some of the worst affected in the crisis. In Lower Shabelle, 18 percent of children under five died and in Mogadishu, 17 percent. The famine spread from there to Middle Shabelle, Afgoye and camps for displaced people in the government-controlled capital, Mogadishu.

An estimated 4.6 percent of Somalia’s total population of and 10 percent of children under five died in southern and central Somalia.

Why Did the World Drag Its Feet to Help Somalia?

The U.N. declared the famine over in February of 2012. But as Ben Foot of Save the Children emphasizes, Somalia still has one of the highest rates of child malnutrition and infant mortality in the world.

The U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) has emphasized that the international response was too slow and was also a factor in so many dying in the famine. The FAO’s Ruth Van Aaken calls on the humanitarian community to take far earlier action, as she says to the BBC:

“Responding only when the famine is declared is very very ineffective. Actually about half of the casualties were there before the famine was already declared.”

What needs to be done is to foster development, by “creating jobs, supporting farmers and pastoralists and ensuring trained, accountable security forces,” and to seek international support to do so. Senait Gebregziabher, country director of Oxfam Somalia, asserts that such a “shocking death toll must never be allowed to happen again.” As she says in the Guardian,

“Famines are not natural phenomena, they are catastrophic political failures. The world was too slow to respond to stark warnings of drought, exacerbated by conflict, in Somalia, and people paid with their lives.”

To prevent another tragedy in Somalia, we cannot wait until an international organization announces that there is a famine. We have to start now, says Gegregziabher, by involving  ”women and men from across Somalia….in a bottom-up process to determine the country’s future” rather than implementing “top down” solutions in which the residents of a country are given aid during the crisis, but not educated and directed to create a sustainable future for themselves.

The recent famine in Somalia was, says Fews Net official Chris Hillbruner, “one of the worst famines in the last 25 years.” It doesn’t have to happen again — and we can support efforts like those of Oxfam and Save the Children to work toward this.

Related Care2 Coverage

Somali Comedian Shot Dead After Making Islamist Jokes

Somalia Famine: A History That Cannot Be Allowed to Repeat Itself

Why Did Canadians Give Less to Somalia than Haiti and South Asia Disasters

Photo via DFID - UK Department for International Development/Flickr

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Andrea Jarich
Andrea Jarich2 years ago

We need to find a way to deal with fighting or at least how to deliver aid in a way that doesn't let fighting get in the way.

Elizabeth Koenig
Elizabeth Koenig2 years ago

The biggest problem has been that Islamists in Somalia *actually target the aid workers*, and have killed many of them. No wonder help is not getting to the people who need it!

Melania Padilla
Melania Padilla2 years ago

Besides other actions, we need to educate women, the whole world benefits when we educate girls. Also, there should be birth control programs.

Deborah W.
Deborah W.2 years ago

Lack of aid, power grab rules ... every government on the planet is now in the game. Coming sooner or later to your corner of the world if the heart of people does not experience rebirth soon. Sad, all the wasted gifts and energy ... for what?

Leia P.
Leia P.2 years ago

and nobody cares :(

Narendranath Murthy

Construction of sturdy houses and jobs will make drought disappear.

paul m.
paul m.2 years ago

Samalia ....is there any profit to be gained ? no , So, what Governments would care about
260,000 thousand people and more when they look for ways to make life immposable for
its own people..

Sonny Honrado
Sonny Honrado2 years ago

More planning and action.

Scott haakon
Scott haakon2 years ago

There are many reason primarily that Somalia is a political mess. The people there are responsible for getting things started and the UN for not shipping what the people really need guns. The Technical s control most of everything that comes and goes. Thepeople there will have to force change.

Carole R.
Carole R.2 years ago